How human-centred design can transform government service delivery during COVID and beyond

How human-centred design can transform government service delivery during COVID and beyond


We know many Canadians are finding it tough during COVID-19, from small businesses struggling to remain open to families juggling care and work responsibilities. Many governments are reaching into their policy toolbox for conventional measures to find urgent solutions to help communities get back on track.

But what if there was a more innovative way to reinvigorate entrepreneurship and to help communities that ensured the good intentions of government programs translated into good results? And what if that approach could enhance government service delivery efforts at municipal, provincial and national levels, long after the pandemic subsides?

Governments across the world are turning to human-centred design (HCD) to solve some of their toughest challenges and drive quantifiable benefits for citizens and stakeholders. HCD can be used to understand problems and develop solutions with citizen groups impacted by COVID.

Many organizations make big claims about connecting with users, but the reality often falls short. They might undertake a survey here or a community consultation there, but often the outcome is predetermined and citizens rightly feel they are not being heard. Genuine HCD can give you a suite of tools to engage users in a meaningful way so services reflect the lived experience and needs of users.

This article explores how HCD is being used by governments in Australia, and how governments in Canada could deploy HCD to support citizen groups through COVID recovery.

HCD puts citizens at the centre of government policies and services

Pioneered in the tech world through user and customer experience design, HCD (or “design thinking”) embeds the voice and experience of users in the design of products, services and organizations. The method is increasingly found in different sectors and applications, including in government policy, service design and regulation.

In essence, HCD blends divergent and convergent thinking to rapidly move through four stages in co-designing and delivering a new product or service with users. This is reflected in the Double Diamond (adapted from Britain’s Design Council):

Nous' double diamond diagram

In the Discover phase, practitioners conduct research to rapidly understand the current experience from the perspectives of everyone involved in the system. Then in the Define phase they synthesize insights from the research to define and prioritize the problems to be solved. In the Design phase they use proven HCD methods to generate ideas with users that solve the defined problems. And finally in the Deliver phase they co-design prototypes with users and test with a wider group, collecting and evaluating feedback so the solution can be improved. This cycle is then repeated.

Done right, HCD allows public sector teams and organizations to get to the core of the problems faster, and design and deliver better and more inclusive policies, services and products, knowing that their work responds to the needs of their clients and citizens and not just the needs of government.

Australian public services have demonstrated the value of HCD

Public sector organizations across Australia have partnered with Nous to apply our HCD methodology to the stickiest problems for their clients, including citizens who are experiencing vulnerability.

Better Approvals ensures regulation works for small businesses
With the state of Victoria being home to 556,000 small businesses, the state government was keen to work with municipal governments to ease the regulatory burden. The burden for regulations including planning permission and food safety registration was estimated at $131 million, with local municipalities taking an average of 200 days to assess and approve some permits and some businesses waiting up to 18 months to open their doors.

Nous used HCD to understand the needs of small businesses and worked with local municipal staff to identify ways to reshape the approval process. By redesigning processes with users and staff, the time to approve permits was reduced by an average 72 per cent, saving Victorian businesses a collective $1.5 million in rent, fees and other costs incurred while waiting to open their doors. The changes were a welcome relief to businesses and empowered municipal staff to take a customer-centred approach to all services.

So far more than 40 Victorian governments have used Nous to help them introduce better approvals. The project was shortlisted for an Institute of Public Administration Australia award for HCD service delivery.

Working with an Indigenous community to design a needs-based service delivery model

In Northern Queensland, a Cape York Indigenous community organization was seeking fresh ideas to ensure its services were meeting the needs of the local Aboriginal population.

Working in partnership with the client’s critical community groups, Nous consultants with experience in Indigenous communities conducted design research to understand the various perspectives of the local population. Together, we were able to rapidly understand how the community worked and the issues faced by individuals, families and the organizations providing services.

To meet the needs identified by the community, Nous co-designed with the community a bespoke service delivery model, including strategies to build an active and resilient community, connect to culture, give kids a good education, improve access to employment opportunities, and support community members. The community is implementing the model and monitoring the results.

Canadian governments can use HCD to support citizens through COVID recovery

HCD can have an enormous impact in all sorts of service delivery contexts. Right now we think it has great potential to support the recovery from COVID.

Making it easier for businesses and sectors hit hardest by COVID
The hardest hit businesses from COVID are overwhelmingly in the food and beverage, arts and entertainment, and tourism sectors, and these businesses are the furthest from recovery, according to Statistics Canada.[1] The Canadian Federation of Independent Business estimates that one in seven small and medium-sized businesses are at risk of closing.[2]

How can government-led HCD reinvigorate entrepreneurship and small businesses?

Discover and Define: Rapidly and fully understand the impact of government policies on affected stakeholders through deep qualitative research. This could provide insights into business owner perspectives on how government programs and services create impediments or lack the required support, for example.

Design the solution: Design or co-design unique solutions to the problems defined by businesses. This could include removing unnecessary steps in processes, simplifying the process of setting up a business, or changing bylaws and regulations.

Deliver: Develop prototypes and test with businesses, and then iterate and refine the solution. After deploying a co-created solution, the government would evaluate its impact to assess its efficacy. Is it addressing the challenges of decreasing administrative cost to businesses or expediting approval processes, for example?

Supporting families through COVID recovery

During COVID, women who work full time and care for children have found it particularly challenging in the absence of childcare and in-person schooling. According to RBC Economics, last year women accounted for 64 per cent of the increase in the number of people not in the labour force.[3] Industries that employ more women than men and have female business owners were also the most impacted.

HCD can help governments to better support women’s employment and entrepreneurship now and beyond the COVID recovery.

Discover and Define: Understand the priorities of women who might access government supports and childcare services. For example, high quality and trusted business advice may be the goal for a female entrepreneur hoping to grow her business with government support. Based on this understanding, define the problems that need to be addressed.

Design the solution: Design or co-design through generating ideas and solutions to the problems defined by the women citizen groups. This could include specific funding program and application changes for start-up support, rethinking childcare delivery, or developing new training programs.

Deliver: Prototype the solution and test, refine and iterate with women citizen groups. Then deploy the solution – such as a revised program – and evaluate the outcomes to ensure it is tackling the identified problems.

All governments are under great pressure to support their citizens through this massive disruption. The established ways of service delivery are unlikely to meet citizen needs, so governments need to find better ways of connecting with citizens.

HCD offers an ideal pathway to make that connection. Without it, many people will feel ignored and dispirited, and confidence in governments eroded.

Get in touch to discuss how Nous can support you to deploy human-centred design to meet your service delivery challenges.

Prepared with input from Kirsty Elderton and Andrew Hamilton.

Connect with Kelly Rowe, Tess Lawley and Andrew Hamilton on LinkedIn.

[1] Statistics Canada, “Impact of COVID-19 on food services and drinking places, first quarter of 2021”, 18 March 2021

[2] Canadian Federation of Independent Business, “How many Canadian businesses are at risk of permanently closing due to COVID-19?” July 2020

[3] RBC, ”Canadian Women Continue to Exit the Labour Force”, 19 November 2020