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A Field Guide to Life in Government for User Researchers

Post it note on a window with phrase service design is challenging power

I love giving talks to design students. Partly since I spent several years teaching design and user research and still miss the intense energy of the studio. But mainly because it’s one of the few times I get to step away from my job and just think, often at the behest of a curious student.  Like when one asked me what we did to get people to see the value of design in government…

Notes from the Field

I’ve spent the last couple of years as part of a team of users researchers and service designers working on (mostly) digital public services transformation at the Scottish Government. It’s been challenging, exciting, infuriating, exhausting and deeply enriching. My team work across a huge range of central government and public sector projects – from the new social security service for Scotland to employability services to healthcare. We’re on a mission to help people delivering new services design them from the service user’s point of view, and do that with and not just for those people. Or rather we’re on a mission to help those people learn how to do that in ways that enable them to work across organisational boundaries and collaborate, share and reuse wherever possible.

Now like many of us in ‘specialist roles’ in government I am not a career civil servant, and have no desire to be one. Most governments I am aware of have two kinds of civil servants – specialists and generalists. The UK civil service (in the kind of complex arrangement that governments often need to make, Scottish Government civil servants are part of the UK Civil Service although with some differences in organisational structure and allegiance) was designed originally by and for generalists. It’s still working through how to manage specialists and inevitably that leads to tensions on both sides. But then I know very few user researchers working in places where we are ‘in the woodwork’ or even understood well, so in that respect no change!

I’m a design ethnographer who happens to be lucky enough for now to be practicing her craft in a uniquely rewarding environment. At this stage of my life and career what motivates me is the desire to do what I do in places that need it and where I can add value. After two years I  continue to believe that the practices and values of design are a good match for a civil service adapting to new realities. In my head there is a straight line from the desire to pass power to people and communities Scottish Government is committed to and the world of design. But it would be disingenuous to suggest that joining the civil service is not without its challenges. I spent my whole life avoiding large highly hierarchical  organisations and here I am in the mothership of bureaucratic life.

These two years have convinced me that people like me are needed. However persuading people like me to come in for a while is hard. So here’s a short field guide to a life in government for user researchers. Wherever you are there is a good chance your government needs you. Sometimes it knows that already, sometimes not, and most times even when you get in there it won’t really know what to do with you. But you are needed, for reasons I will come to shortly.

Let’s be honest – we can’t offer big salaries, stock options or relocation packages. We can’t offer travel to exotic places and opportunities to work on cutting edge projects. But the scale of the challenge, the impact of the work? Well there we’re on to a winner. Doing ‘a stint’ in government will give you exposure to some amazing challenges. But it gives something else, a bit more subtle but in my mind even more valuable for a career. It gives you a chance to really learn how to design ‘in context’.

Joining the civil service has given me an opportunity to really explore if, and if so how, design is of value in the everyday doings of government – the delivery of services, the development of policy, the creation of the administrative apparatus of the state. This is government. Lives. Get it wrong and people hurt. This is big and complex and the stakes are high. But these two years have convinced me that what design offers to government is simply this – a straightforward toolkit of ideas and ways of working oriented to the idea that before we solve a problem we should really understand the problem with the people who have the problem. Only then should try to solve it by making solutions iteratively, with the people who have the problem. Finally – all the time we are doing that we remain open to the idea that our exploring and making may reveal a better understanding of the problem that will change our thinking about the solution.

Rambling through the beginnings of an answer to that curious student’s question it struck me that there are parallels between being a design ethnographer and an ‘outsider’ inside government. In both roles the entry to the new situation creates a sense of disorientation and shock. The unfamiliar, the uncertain, the downright weird, abound. We are forced to swiftly try and adjust as best we can.

Entering the Field

As an ethnographer this moment is especially valuable – the physical environment, patterns of behaviour, social systems, material culture, knowledge, beliefs and symbols of the new place are most readily available to us as we encounter them for the first time. We become excited, focussed, desperate to start describing and making sense of what we are experiencing. As the new civil servant, on the other hand, we often feel overwhelmed or sometimes angry ‘why must I do this this way?’. And of course just as the new ethnographer in the field encounters, the ‘outsider’ civil servant will also encounter fear, suspicion, disregard.

The experience of the new exhausts us quickly. Resistance, of course, is futile but also an all too human response to a new situation. We don’t like to let go. As babies we are born with an instinct, a reflex, to grab hold. But none to release. That needs to be taught. Clinging to our beliefs, our routines, in the face of all this newness we begin to consciously try and adjust ourselves to our situation. At this stage though we still feel awkward, still hyper aware of the differences. But we look for the places where we can fit, albeit at first awkwardly, into this land of the Others.

Soon enough we start to find them. Then just as quickly we encounter the challenge of working out if we are bringing something new or simply the old in new clothes. Luckily the ethnographers training is useful here – constantly questioning both the sense of difference and of similarity. It’s that constant questioning, the looking for the why beneath the why beneath the why, that will keep you right at this point. Government has been around an awful lot longer than design thinking or user researchers. As we know from our training don’t be fooled by the illusion of ‘system’ – this is human social life in all its messy and complex glory. Take some time to embrace the messiness.

Adapting to the Field

With time we begin to notice that some of our adjustments are becoming automatic, routine. We no longer need to think quite so much about them and we begin to notice more frequently similarity in the activities and people around us. As we adapt we also begin to move from the changing to the changed ends of the experience spectrum . Where once we had to think about a particular act such joining in with an unfamiliar task or censoring a thought before sharing it publicly now it starts to come more naturally (well, mostly).

Sometimes we notice ourselves adapting, question ourselves about the accommodations we are making.  As an ethnographer we try to stay especially alert to this as we worry about the point at which we might lose sight of our duty to describe and interpret consciously. As an outsider inside we begin to notice the uncomfortableness of being charged or encouraged to bring new ways of thinking in without a clear map of where these are likely to be needed or welcomed.

Despite the moments of discomfort this is a moment that often brings a sense of relief. The energy spent consciously coping with the new now diminishes, at least a little, and is freed up for other things. As a civil servant this energy can be refocussed on the ‘insider’ (emic) view  – we begin to feel closer to those who once seemed exotic, work harder to see past the superficial differences. Adapting can bring moments of insight as we see opportunities to learn as well as change, or begin to question our values and beliefs, no longer so sure of ourselves. We also begin to notice that many of those ‘career civil servants’ are in fact outsiders inside as well, they’ve just been inside longer. 

And we begin to fall in love. I know, we don’t talk of love and work in the same breath usually, but ethnographers know that falling in love with our fields is just one of those things that can happen. This is also the time to really ask ourselves, in the words of David Byrne, ‘what am I doing here?’. Can we see where we can add value clearly, are the conditions right for us to be able to deliver it? Do we need to understand more, or adapt or practices more, or build our alliances more?

Going ‘Native’

Acceptance. The moment when we fully lose sight of what was once so obviously new to us. An ethnographer worries about this – the interpretavist stance dropped as being part of the action melds into simply being part of. Belonging is the state of deep acceptance of and comfort with the community and context you are in. As an ethnographer we shy away from this, keen to keep that clear line between me, and me in the field. But as a civil servant, should we perhaps not seek the moment of acceptance? After all, this is a community with a very clear, consistent and strong sense of identity and culture, so much so that outsider or not we all sign up to the Civil Service Code.

Well the answer to that I am afraid time only can tell – I am not there yet. I’m conscious I’m teetering on the edge of going ‘native’, but not sure what I’ll do when that happens. But what I do know is that these last two years have provided me with a  depth of professional experience and growth I struggle to imagine finding elsewhere.

When the Field Calls

Joining government convinced a) it’s broken and b) you have the fix is a recipe for disaster. Joining government with a desire to understand, and then help, well that’s more likely to leave both insiders and outsiders with a good feeling. I’d encourage any of you who ‘hear the call’ to think about accepting, but only if you are ready to go in to government with the same open and learning stance as you would any field.

The salary won’t be great, the travel won’t be glamorous, the frustrations will be numerous and you may never feel that what you are doing is deeply valued by the organisation itself. But you will learn more in government about your practice than you could ever imagine. You will learn more about complex messy human systems than you could ever imagine. You will remind yourself that lazy stereotypes about civil servants are just that, lazy stereotypes.

Ultimately, the best reason to do ‘a stint’ in government is the same as the best reason to do anything on this beautiful planet – to grow.

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