User-centered design  —  new normal for Georgia’s public service?

December 25, 2018

Photo: Nino Zedginidze/UNDP

I noticed a new grocery store next to our office recently. The owner invited me in and explained: “we’ve moved from the street nearby, but it’s not just me selling vegetables and fruits, here’s a cheese vendor who joined from the other street corner, and a butcher from the shop next door, and soon we’ll get home-made stuff, all in one place, sort of a mini one-stop-shop, just like our Public Service Hall”.

For those who are not familiar with the Georgian Public Service Hall  —  it is often compared to Disney Land by visiting public service innovators, fascinated by the concept, physical space and technology allowing to change passport in a day’s time or register property while enjoying cup of coffee in a cafe right in the same building, which for ordinary Georgians has become a new normal, something that can be replicated in a street shop round the corner.

Georgia Social Good Summit 2016 #ICAN initiative organized by the Administration of the Government of Georgia, UNDP Human Rights Joint initiative and PSDA Service Lab for co-creating solutions for the safe transport for Persons with Disabilities and awareness raising among wider public led me to thinking that the practice of co-designing public services can also become a new normal for Georgians in not very distant future as the event represents reiteration of the sequence of successful examples of redesigning emergency services, scientific library concept and express public services for the population of the remote regions in Georgia.

This design thinking meet - up was different from the others by the way we selected participants for ensuring financial sustainability and wider public outreach. Together with the Government agencies and persons with disabilities we reached out to:

  • private sector , namely financial institutions, like Tree of Life of the Bank of Georgia and micro-finance organization BIG, which immediately provided information on the opportunities for the implementation of the ideas developed during 2 days.
  • public figures, journalists, actors -those shaping public opinion through various forms of media — TV, Radio, social media channels; and
  • usual suspects — innovation champions from previous design experiments, persons with disabilities, ordinary citizens interested in this matter, NGOs and activities promoting better urban planning, academia and youth.

What were the results for Government Administration?

At this design gathering empathy was going in full swing — as one of the participants put it “it turned out to be difficult to come up with the solutions for others” with them being in the same room and giving immediate feedback. It was at the same time, very productive — six groups came up with over dozen concrete initiatives, ranging from changing physical infrastructure of bus stops, public transport and buildings to legislative amendments for private sector to enforce such changes, as well as employment opportunities for Persons with Disabilities transforming them into full-fledged members of their communities contributing to their development and growth.

“This was the most impressive form of collaboration with persons with disabilities that I have ever witnessed” said Natalia Jaliashvili, the Head of Human Rights Secretariat of the Administration of the Government of Georgia and pledged to follow up with the solutions presented.

What does this mean for Georgian Service Lab?

While the most important phase of materializing proposed solutions is still ahead, for the Lab it was yet another chance to validate the usefulness of the kind of engagement the Service Lab can offer to its prospective clients in the government of Georgia by bringing in citizen perspective to the decision-makers at all levels who need to make sense of complex realities on the ground and navigate through them. At this point in time it is with the active involvement of UNDP that such linkages are fostered and promoted, however provided the sustained support of both donors and Government leadership such development looks more real than ever.

To borrow from Nesta-IDEO Guide on Designing Public Services, quoting Marco Steinberg, government innovator and founder, Snowcone & Haystack, strategic design practice for government “increasingly, the public sector has to deal with uncertainty rather than risk, and it is good at managing risk but bad at managing uncertainty. Design offers the capacity to engage with user needs and social needs, and to take a prototyping approach to solutions. This is a way to build a bridge between uncertainty and risk.”

For my personal introspection, I am discovering other bridges that design can build. I used to think of the Government Labs as a kind of space for collaboration, but it seems to me now that it is more of a bridge, where citizenry and government meet half way. The space can actually be provided by either of the parties, like in this particular case, by the new partner of the Lab — forward looking Human Rights Secretariat , as the ‘owner’ of the problem it is aiming to tackle in the new ground-breaking way.

And as Naniko Tsiklauri of PSDA rightly put it, ‘innovation is only means to an end’; in this particular case, the end being the provision of equal opportunities for persons with disabilities in Georgia through cultivating novel culture of user centered design of public services and policy-making.

What does it mean for a wider context of governance in Georgia?

Ever since I joined the world of governance innovation I have never stopped wondering at the number of young professionals making up the fabric of the civil service in Georgia. There are many bright, motivated and forward-looking policy-makers open to innovation in the Government and acknowledging its importance for the country. The perfect example of this is the existence of 3 innovation outlets in the Government of Georgia with 3 distinct mandates (PSDA Service LabPlanning and Innovations Unit at the Administration of the Government of Georgia, and GITA — Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency).

On the other hand, there is an increasing number of citizens who have necessary skills and understanding to engage with the policy-makers in the decision-making process who represented citizenry in design-thinking projects reflected above and not only (Union of Deaf of GeorgiaIare PekhitWeHelpGuerrilla Gardening, etc)

Additionally, PSDA Service Lab is uniquely placed to create the necessary interface between the two and bring on board private sector, like in this latest experiment, academia and external expertise lacking in the country. And even more, create openings for reverse engineering the Georgian novelties, like one-stop-shop civil service provision practices to the external clients.

This unprecedented window of opportunity sets an interesting perspective for unfolding Public Administration Reform in Georgia in non-linear manner of experimentation — something Finnish Government, for example, has already been putting in practice.

Whether Government, citizens, international actors and donor community, like UNDP and UK Government supporting the reform process in Georgia live up to this challenge we have yet to see, though the success of the user-centered design in the Georgian public service so far seems to be a promising start.