A Captainless Ship

Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking, as part of an international panel at the Hertie School of Government, about the landscape for ‘Human-Centred Design in Government & Social Innovation in the UK. In the process of mulling things over in preparation a few macro trends clarified themselves in my head. Namely, alongside the fairly predictable (albeit stupid – see blog here) ‘cuts to the arts’, recent years have also seen a gradual disenfranchisement of design and design policy expertise in the UK.

The Design Council has shouldered its share of the cuts and constitutionally has moved away from government, from being a non-departmental public body to a charity. The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment nearly disappeared altogether. It was saved by a merger with Design Council but many of its people have dispersed into other charities and think tanks. The GLA’s urban design department, Design London, has been decimated, with most of its people finding their way into academia or consultancy. The regional design support expertise built up within RDAs has evaporated with those organisations – and with it a great deal of know-how about bidding for EU grants. Bucking this trend is Nesta, who appear to have gone from strength to strength. No doubt their generous endowment helps.

But nonetheless, unlike other countries, all the UK expertise in design policy is now outside government, leaving departments such as BIS, and the Cabinet Office, playing catch-up, casting around to try and find out who knows what and who can help them. The experts now are not in government, and design policy is without an institutional home (hence the subtitle of my talk, ‘a captainless ship’). This is in contrast to competitor nations’ governments who have either design-led strategy units looking at public service transformation (US, Australia, France, Denmark, Finland), or design strategies as a very clear pillar of industrial and economic growth strategies (the BRICs, and all the Far Eastern economies).

Now I’m not saying all these cast-off people are owed jobs by government, but taken together it does represent an impoverishment of design intelligence inside government. A very useful capacity that was generated under New Labour has been sidelined. And perhaps it’s because these things were all part of the 1997 Creative Britain landscape that the Coalition seeks to distinguish itself from. Admittedly we are now seeing the rise of some design-y Coalition projects: the government digital service (although I think the design bit came along with the digital, I’m not convinced it was a political intention); the infamous Nudge Unit (but behavioural economics and randomised control trials are not the same as strategic design, they are bits of it); and Ed Vaizey has recently commissioned an Architecture Review, which must be a kick in the teeth for CABE-ers who lost their jobs.

As well as the party political flavour, it’s undoubtedly part of a wider clamp down on spend, and the drive for smaller government. It seems bizarre to me though that in whittling government down, strategic expertise wouldn’t be one of the things you’d hold on to.

This brings me to another more general point about the unhelpfulness of the austerity rhetoric (for which thought I owe Jeremy Till some dues). It doesn’t leave much room for creative invention. It’s very reductive, disempowering, all about taking things away. A positivity ceasefire. We just have to ride out this period of misery and then we can flourish again. Such a mindset is not conducive to encouraging public servants to consider design activity: which is all about seeing possibilities and creating value. Mostly the Coalition government seems to be interested in talking about innovation only for how it can save money, not how it can create value for users. As such it’s a tactic of management rather than leadership, all pragmatism and no vision. I don’t think it bodes well.

1 thought on “A Captainless Ship”

  1. Excellent policy overview – thank you, Jocelyn. What about lobbying for a Government Design Unit akin to Nudge Unit. A small team of policy specialists with a design strategist on the helm. Not directly delivering but advising and commissioning across government. Just a thought.

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