Public Managers as Innovators: In Search of Design Attitude

Can public managers see themselves as active designers of innovation and change processes, involving both citizens and the government?

Public Managers as Innovators: In Search of Design Attitude

Date Posted

15 Jun 2013


Issue 12, 14 Jun 2013


The economic, financial and social crisis in many developed economies is putting public managers under almost unprecedented pressure to deliver more value while reining in cost. From Europe to the UK and the US, austerity measures have been put in place which leave no doubt that governments will be severely cash-strapped for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, “wicked” societal challenges abound, which require smarter solutions in increasingly turbulent, complex and interdependent societal and human settings.1,2

The voice of the citizen, captured through audio or video, is a crucial trigger for change.

This growth in both turbulence and complexity has occurred in tandem, perhaps coincidentally, with an increasingly systematic exploration of what design3 can do for government. We appear to be seeing a period of rapid experimentation, often framed in the context of new forms of citizen involvement.4 Over the past decade, public sector organisations in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, France, Denmark, the UK,5 Canada and the US have, to varying degrees and in different forms, taken up such design approaches as a tool to drive innovation and change.6,7 Just within the past year, governments in the US, Australia and Singapore have set up their own innovation labs and design centres.


The Human Experience Lab (THE Lab) helps Singapore’s public agencies design and develop public policies, services and experiences that are more human-centred. Established in April 2012 within the Public Service Division, PS21 Office, it has worked with agencies to:

Read More

Co-designing for Solutions that Work

Design approaches provide a different set of tools and ways of working systematically with innovation in government. Qualitative, ethno-graphically inspired design research; highly interactive and tangible workshop formats; visualisation and rapid prototyping; user testing of redesigned services: these are emerging as effective approaches to innovation.8 Such co-design approaches help public managers understand how the system/user relationship is shaped, concretely, in terms of space, time and interactions. This “outside-in” perspective has a disruptive potential, because public managers get to view the results of their organisation’s efforts in a new light.

The voice of the citizen, captured through audio or video, is a crucial trigger for change. Qualitative research seems to engender an empathetic, engaging, but still professional, (re) connection between public service staff and users: what can be termed “professional empathy”.6

The Hidden Ingredient: Design Attitude

Change and innovation, however, do not just come about by way of smart methods and tools. It is also a question of stewardship. It is one thing for public managers to hire or employ designers to conduct citizen-centred innovation projects. It is quite another for managers themselves to relate to and drive the change efforts. It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the most forward-thinking managers don’t just commission design projects, but engage actively with the process of innovation. We might even think of them as designers.

We appear to be seeing a period of rapid experimentation, often framed in the context of new forms of citizen involvement.

In their seminal 2004 book Managing as Designing, Richard Boland and Dick Collopy suggest that design attitude might be a useful way of understanding how managers shape and make desirable futures. Innovative public managers tend to immerse themselves in a set of activities around identifying problems and opportunities, seeking new ideas and solutions, and acting on them through engagement with actors inside and outside the organisation. Boland and Collopy make the point that “a design attitude views each project as an opportunity for invention that includes a questioning of basic assumptions and a resolve to leave the world a better place than we found it”.9

In this light, design attitude could help us understand the role of the public manager as someone who drives innovation by taking responsibility for designing organisational responses to the challenges and opportunities they face. How can managers more fundamentally relate to their role as problem solvers and innovators?

In an exploration of what design attitude might entail, Kamil Michlewski undertook a doctoral study in which he interviewed a number of design consultancies, such as IDEO and Philips Design, and mapped the ways key people in design functions in those organisations viewed their roles and practices.10 He subsequently proposed a range of behaviours which characterise design attitude, including: “Consolidating multidimensional meanings”, “Creating, bringing to life”, “Embracing discontinuity and openendedness”, “Engaging polysensorial aesthetics” and “Engaging personal and commercial empathy”.

Design Attitude in Practice

How do design attitude archetypes play out in the real world? Consider how Ms Anne Lind, Director of the Board of Industrial Injuries, reflected on the purchase of a new IT system for her organisation, a Danish government agency of around 300 employees:

Read More

Design and Management: A Complex Dynamic

There seems to be a complex interplay between managers as commissioners of design work, managers as designers themselves, and managers as they are affected by the design work as it unfolds and impacts their organisation. There is a distinction between “managers as designers” and “managers absorbing design”.

First, evidence suggests11 that it is because of their fundamental attitude in favour of problem solving that managers are open and willing to work with designers. Many of the managers who choose to engage with designers have a long track record in continuously exploring new or different management tools and technologies. They tend to have had a career pattern of heavy engagement in developmental activities, personally and professionally. One might therefore speak of a certain “design management maturity” as a leadership trait.

Second, it appears that the managers’ exposure to design approaches — through actual project work — amplifies or catalyses extant design attitudes. The design work stimulates their thinking and perhaps teases out a more “designerly” way of addressing current and possibly future problems.

The most forward-thinking managers don't just commission design projects, but engage actively with the process of innovation.

While the work of Michlewski and others help describe what a design attitude might look like, the very notion still raises questions for how we should educate current and future public managers. What is their role in initiating and stewarding systematic, design-led problem solving? What specific competencies and skills are required? And perhaps more fundamentally: Is design attitude even something that can be learned?


Christian Bason is the Director of MindLab, an innovation unit that is part of the Danish central government. The author of four books on social innovation, design and leadership, most recently Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society (Policy Press, 2010), he is a frequent presenter and advisor to governments around the world. Bason is a member of numerous advisory boards and was recently appointed Chairman of the European Commission’s Expert Group on public sector innovation. He holds an M.Sc. in political science and is currently writing a doctoral thesis on public management as a design discipline.


  1. Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning”, Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155–169 [Reprinted in Cross, Nigel, ed. Developments in Design Methodology (Chichester: J. Wiley & Sons, 1984).]
  2. Tom Ritchey, Wicked Problems — Social Messes: Decision Support Modelling with Morphological Analysis (Springer, Heidelberg, 2011).
  3. Charles Eames aptly describes design as “a plan for arranging elements in such a way as to best accomplish a particular purpose”. From: Bill Moggridge, Designing interactions (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2007).
  4. In her keynote address to the 2008 IPAA National Conference, Sydney, NSW, June 2008, Jocelyne Bourgon argues that “Citizen engagement aims at opening up new avenues for empowering citizens to play an active role in service design, service delivery and, perhaps most importantly, the ongoing process of service innovation”.
  5. Sophia Parker and Joe Heapy, The Journey to the Interface: How Public Service Design Can Connect Users to Reform (London: Demos, 2006). See
  6. Christian Bason, Leading Public Sector Innovation: Co-creating for a Better Society (Bristol: Policy Press, 2010).
  7. Bryan Boyer, Justin W. Cook and Marco Steinberg, In Studio: Recipes for Systemic Change (Helsinki: Sitra, 2011). See
  8. Elizabeth Sanders and Pieter Jan Stappers, “Co-creation and the New Landscapes of Design”, CoDesign: International Journal of CoCreation in Design and the Arts 4(2008): 5–18.
  9. Richard J. Boland and Fred Collopy, Managing as Designing (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004), 9.
  10. Kamil Michlewski, “Uncovering Design Attitude: Inside the Culture of Designers”, Organization Studies 29(2008): 229–248.
  11. These issues are the subject of ongoing research. See: Christian Bason, “Design Attitude as an Innovation Catalyst.”, in Public Innovation through Collaboration and Design, eds. Chris Ansell and Jacob Torfing (Oxford: Routledge, forthcoming).

Back to Ethos homepage