Baroness Kingsmill: The public sector can learn a lot from the likes of Amazon

There is no doubt that Amazon is a market leader because it engages with its customers. The delivery of public services now needs to be fundamentally redesigned in order to better serve those who use them.

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 09 May 2013

Inspiring Women 2013

Denise Kingsmill will chair MT's Inspiring Women conference on November 27, 2013 - click here to find out more.

On Christmas Eve, my son was waiting for a delivery of contact lenses ordered online some days previously. At 11.30am, a note was put through the letterbox informing him that a parcel was awaiting collection at the Post Office. The note also informed him that the parcel collection office would close for Christmas at noon that day.

Contrast this with the Amazon Locker delivery service. Recognising that most people are unable to sit at home waiting for deliveries, Amazon has located lockers in large shopping centres and train stations where its customers can pick up orders at their convenience. A brilliant idea, which has the added value of giving the e-retailer a bricks-and-mortar presence at very little cost.

Whatever Amazon's UK tax status is, there is no doubt that it is a market leader in home delivery services because it has engaged with its customers, understood their needs and designed its service accordingly. This is the first rule of a successful business.

Unfortunately, all too often in the public sector this simple truth goes unrecognised.

A court service designed for the convenience of judges rather than the people who use it, hospital appointments systems arranged around consultants' timetables rather than patient needs, or school hours incompatible with those of working parents and family life are some examples of poorly designed service provision that leads to waiting lists, increased cost to the taxpayer and general wasteful inefficiency.

This is not an argument for greater participation by business in the provision of public services. The priority of business is, rightly, profit for its owners and this may not be compatible with public service.

What is required is some radical thinking to sweep away ingrained attitudes and old-fashioned practices in order to free up public sector managers to meet the challenges of providing services in the face of deep budget cuts.

Instead of managers being hamstrung by centrally imposed targets and performance criteria, there needs to be a new approach that encourages collaboration between the people who actually experience a service and those who provide it - the aim being to design public services that are better, quicker and cheaper and, above all, tailored to customers' needs.

The UK produces world-famous designers who have changed business practices and approaches in many industries. In many companies, a design perspective is a problem-solving tool that can be applied in a variety of ways.

The Silicon Valley-based company 24/7 Inc uses designers and new technology applied to big data to assist telcos, banks, and airlines to map customer 'journeys' and touchpoints, predict customer behaviour, and so deliver improved services. Companies such as Procter & Gamble and GE use design thinking to provide a deeper understanding of their customers, the practical, creative resolution of problems and innovative, cost-saving methods of working.

This approach should be more widely adopted in the public sector.

Increasingly, design is understood to encompass social, systems and service design as well as product design. Technology may enable the development of interesting products but it requires creative design thinking to understand how to apply it to meet consumer needs.

Perhaps one of the most ubiquitous examples, in London at least, of the way design thinking allied to technology can fundamentally improve a service is the Oyster card. Over 25 million journeys each day are made to, from or within the capital, many of them facilitated by the swipe of the Oyster smartcard.

Creative solutions to providing public services in the face of budget cuts are a pressing necessity. It is with this in mind that industry-led research group the Design Commission is undertaking an inquiry, co-chaired by Barry Quirk, the chief executive of Lewisham council, and me, to examine how design might work within government and public organisations to improve service delivery.

We have heard evidence from more than 70 organisations and individuals, including universities, local councils, design companies and government departments. We have talked to designers and service providers and users from both the public and the private sector.

The consensus is that the contribution of professional designers can be of great value, particularly to strategy and service development, but there are cultural issues to be overcome in many public sector organisations.

Scepticism and resistance to change are common, even in the face of inspirational examples of successful design thinking such as the Dott Cornwall programme of public service innovation.

The county council has created several projects focusing on how Cornwall could create a world-class workforce while combating unemployment, using the ideas and resourcefulness of those who use its services.

We also found that the design community needs to become better at understanding government and social contexts and objectives. One of our witnesses, Joe Ferry, head of brand experience at Vertu and formerly head of design at Virgin Atlantic, identified the core issue of service design in the public sector when he told us that 'the most common problem is trying to re-engineer what exists, rather than stepping back and thinking about what is actually needed'.

We will be reporting later this month with firm recommendations to the Government as to how to embed design thinking into public service provision - so watch this space.

Baroness Kingsmill is a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards. Lady Kingsmill can be contacted on

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