In the face of tight budgets and deeper scrutiny,
public sector institutions have turned to
design-led thinking to improve service delivery
Jason Walsh & Ciaran Harris
First appeared 16 May 2021 in the Sunday Business Post
When the Oireachtas website, oireachtas.ie, was reimagined, strategic design firm Each&Other took care to create a site that not only looked good but actually delivered what its users needed.
“The public now expects things to be online,” said Ciaran Harris, co-founder and director of Each&Other.
Some countries have been online for a long time: Harris formerly lived in Finland, a country which he said had been a real pioneer in delivering government services online.
Online, Ireland is a patchwork: many services are available online, but with varying levels of user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) quality. Indeed, with oireachtas.ie there was a need to completely overhaul the website.
Key to service delivery is good design, as design-led thinking will drive successful project delivery. As a result, Harris said, design should be seen as a core aspect of the project and not a surface-level activity or afterthought.
Unfortunately, this has not always been the case – and not just in the public sector, either.
“We were [once] brought in to set up an agile delivery team within a company and the scrum master said: ‘Oh, designers. You do all the touchy-feely stuff’.” Well, within a year we were all working together like a well-oiled machine but that is an example of how people’s perceptions can be off, and that’s an example from the private sector,” he said.
Fortunately, with oireachtas.ie Each&Other was working in a forward-looking and supportive environment led by Karin Whooley, web manager of the Houses of the Oireachtas Service.
“Without a person like Karin you can really run into problems because, internally, you do need buy-in at that senior stakeholder level,” said Harris.
The oireachtas.ie project is ongoing, though post-delivery it has now been handed over to a government team.
“Oireachtas.ie was an 18-month project but it’s the kind of project that doesn’t just stop: Karin has an internal team and they maintain it,” said Harris. This is essential because continuity is at the core of what it does.
“They have to consider things you wouldn’t think about, like a government reshuffle. Something like that changes a lot of things. The names of departments can change according to the portofolio, and committee names can then be a problem with the need to keep the record both historically and going forward.”
Key stakeholders for oireachtas.ie are journalists as well as Oireachtas members and their staff, all of whom use the site to search the historical record. Beyond that, though, there are educational users, such as schools teaching students about the process of politics, as well as the citizens to whom politicians report.
“We ran a beta [test site] for a good six months,” Harris said. “We let word out gradually to the key stakeholders. If you have good design you will have a good launch: it’s not an afterthought, it’s about asking ‘What problem are we actually trying to solve here?”
In practical terms that means stakeholder reviews and co-design workshops as well as allowing everyone to have their voice heard as this helps develop buy-in.
When it comes to the actual design, user testing is often a starting place but in the case of oireachtas.ie the old site was considered so outdated that a complete overhaul was required, so the process instead began with rapid prototyping.
“It was quite a huge site so we tackled it section by section,” Harris said. Here again design-led thinking helped, as it removed the risk of creating a ‘bitty’ collection of siloed sites.
“Having a holistic vision helps it all feel coherent. You almost don’t notice the site because you just get to do what you set out to do. That’s the difference between a site that was designed and one that was just built.”
The lessons learned can be passed on to other public sector bodies and branches of government.
“The two big differences between public and private sectors are, number one, the budgets and tender process and, number two, the awareness of the impact of design. In tendering [there is still a] preference for the lowest bid and the problem with that is that a site developed on that basis might look great, but does it work?” said Harris.
“The fact that if you get it right you won’t have to spend money on redesigns can get overlooked.”