Redesigning the Service Experience

Design thinking approaches could catalyse breakthrough innovations in public service delivery.

Date Posted

8 Jan 2010


Issue 8, 14 Aug 2010

Forward-looking public organisations seeking to enhance public value and reduce the inconvenience of public services have often pursued reforms on the basis of efficiency gains. However, there are limits to how much more efficient processes can be made, and the marginal utility of faster services declines sharply after a point; speedy service soon becomes a given. Instead, process-oriented agencies stand to gain when they look beyond incremental efficiency improvements and consider ways in which their services can allow for more meaningful engagement with their users.

When relevant intangibles are taken into account, and the planning approach allows for the gradual discovery of users' true needs (which may not be the ones which users fully articulate), service transformation can occur. This can lead to a fundamental rethinking of services in terms of their concept (e.g. reliability, accessibility, availability), delivery (e.g. service centre, web portal) or communication (e.g. information management, unique propositions).

Redesigning Employment Pass Services

In 2009, the Ministry of Manpower's Work Pass Division (WPD) used design thinking as a tool to develop better ways to support foreigners who choose Singapore as a destination to live, work and set up businesses. The process of applying for an Employment Pass used to be a laborious 13-step procedure with long waiting times for both employers and foreigners.

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Design thinking is a methodology to develop products and services, solve problems or create experiences. It is an approach that applies human-centred and creative principles to create a desired future. Design thinking requires strategy and implementation to happen at the same time where, at every stage, ideation (strategy development) is interlinked to "making" (implementation and production). New insights are formed while moving from idea to operation, and vice versa. It is this integrated and iterative interplay between strategy and implementation which brings about innovation.

While design thinking has gained currency in the private sector, it has yet to become widespread in the public sector. There are several reasons why this might be so. First, such an approach may appear irrational, abstract or even extravagant with outcomes that may not be directly measurable or tangible and hence at odds with the quantitative indicators that customarily account for public spending. Second, design is often regarded, at best, as a good-to-have element in support of other key public roles instead of being itself a strategic function of operational planning. Third, most public agencies are the sole providers of unique and often mandated services; there is inherently no strong impetus to radically reinvent their services and operations, and little comparative basis with which to make changes.

Three factors can determine a public organisation's success in using design thinking to transform service provision: a design thinking mindset, appropriate methodologies, and the infusion of design thinking into the organisation's culture and core competency.


Service transformation through design thinking happens when there is an appreciation of the value of design principles to continually discover insights about the customer. At the same time, the organisation must have the capacity to experiment, take risks and explore radical possibilities. It is also important to have someone within the organisation who can champion and demonstrate the benefits of design thinking for service innovation. Throughout the service redesign process, users are active participants at the heart of service transformation. This change in mindset can drive behaviours which in turn allow for more refinement and reinvention of service to take place.


The choice of an appropriate design thinking methodology depends on the agency's experience with the concept. Agencies that are new to the approach would benefit from the appointment of qualified design consultants who are able to transfer knowledge of the methodology to their clients.2 Such client-consultant partnerships allow public agencies who are new to the design thinking methodology to learn how the consultant uses the process, and gain hands-on experience in the approach by directly participating in the development of service prototypes.

The challenge many public organisations will face is how to reconcile the use of abstract and intangible elements in the creation of the absolute and the concrete.

Organisational Culture and Competency

Structurally, design thinking must be part of the organisation's long-term and short-term planning, as well as day-to-day decision-making throughout the entire value chain: from product and service development to planning, communications, and service delivery. In the early years of design thinking development, the emphasis is often placed on maximising participation and buy-in to the process among staff, service partners and users, as services are prototyped and redesigned.

Once employees are empowered and confident enough to ask difficult questions, they will learn to push the envelope of existing parameters, and begin to exhibit design thinking across their work. The real test of success is how the agency sustains design thinking as part of its corporate culture, where both management and the line staff apply design thinking principles in the way all strategies and projects are conceptualised and implemented in the organisation.


Design thinking does not encourage thinking out of the box; it is about recognising that there is no box. It draws attention to the need to imagine a new space and establish fresh parameters in order to generate the right experience and potentially transform the perception and meaning of public service. The challenge many public organisations will face is how to reconcile the use of abstract and intangible elements in the creation of the absolute and the concrete; how to bridge the gap between utility and experience, in order to anticipate new needs, environments and futures.


Dr June Gwee is Principal Researcher at Centre for Governance and Leadership at the Civil Service College. She is also the author of Art and Design for Strategic Management (Saarbrücken: VDM Verlag Dr. Müller, 2008). Her research interests are in design, arts and culture, and strategy and innovation. She received a PhD in Visual Arts from the University of Sydney for her research on design management. The views expressed in this article are her own.


  1. Neumeier, Marty, The Designful Company: How to Build a Culture of Nonstop Innovation (USA: New Riders, 2009).
  2. MOM worked closely with design consultancy, IDEO LLC, for the Work Pass Division's third Business Process Re-engineering and the EPSC was the first project deliverable as a result of this collaboration.

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