Human-centred governance: transforming government from the outside-in

Design approaches are now being applied all over the world as a powerful approach to innovating public policies and services. Christian Bason, author of Leading public design: Discovering human-centred governance, argues that by bringing design methods into play, public managers can lead change with citizens at the centre, and discover a new model for steering public organisations: human-centred governance.

Christian Bason

From the United Nations, the European Union and the World Bank to the governments of Britain, the United States, Denmark and Chile, and to cities like Helsinki, Adelaide and Copenhagen, design methods are now used to re-think and re-do public services.

But how do these approaches influence public innovation? How do they change the roles of public managers? Might they even signal the rise of new governance models or paradigms?

New research conducted with Copenhagen Business School, Stanford University, Case Western University and Oxford Business School examines the experiences of public managers who have pioneered the use of design approaches in government.

Drawing on 15 case studies of public sector projects where managers applied design approaches in Denmark, the UK, Finland, Australia and the US, the research shows that design practice in the public sector happens along three dimensions:

One is exploring the problem space. This includes ethnographically-inspired design approaches for involving citizen’s perspectives. Another is generating alternative scenarios, in which graphical design approaches and creativity inducing methods are used to enable collaborative ideation and concept development.

Finally, enacting new practices involves the use of prototyping and user testing to render possible solutions more tangible, and also various ways of envisioning idealized (future) situations.

Interviews with public managers suggest six types of behaviour, or engagements with these design approaches, which render them particularly effective in catalysing organisational change. The engagements include:

Questioning assumptions, where managers seek out ways of questioning their own assumptions and asking new questions about “what is going on” when his or her organization interacts with its users.

For instance, a manager who engages students in redesigning a high school curriculum asks: “How do we know what the students experience? We are just guessing, we don’t really know.”

Leveraging empathy, where managers seek and use “empathic data” from ethnographically inspired design techniques, to initiate change in their organisation.

As a director general in a labour market agency contends about insights from observing and interviewing citizens who used the organisations services: “It was an eye-opener. It has been good, but it has been tough”.

Stewarding divergence, which is the ability to keep open space and time amid an organisation and its routines to allow a diversity of ideas to emerge, linger, and flourish, while also maintaining for the staff an overall sense of direction and purpose. One leader reflects that this feels like “a loss of control, but a positive loss of control.”

Navigating the unknown, which concerns the ability of managers to handle the insecurities and worries that design processes, with their inherent ambiguities, prompt in their own minds and in the minds of staff members. As staff in one organisation was trained to film their own interactions with citizens, the manager acknowledges that “they looked pretty uncomfortable because it was their own service they were filming.”

Making the future concrete, which is tightly connected to the design practice of prototyping and testing possible solutions together with end-users, staff, and other stakeholders. Here the role of managers is to ensure the creation of tangible results. As one manager says, “Showing an idea rather than just talking about it is really powerful. It gives life to ideas which may otherwise not make it.”

Insisting on public value, the sixth and final leadership behaviour, reflects an orientation toward the outcomes of the organization’s activities and a dedication to producing multiple kinds of value. This could be as productivity gains or improved service experience, but alsovalue for citizens or other constituencies. Of critical importance is that the value of new solutions is experienced by both citizens and staff. “I want everybody to win”, as a manager in business support services says.

By applying these six behaviours, public managers create remarkable results through design projects. Further, those who use design approaches seem inclined toward a new governance practice that, in comparison to historical public management approaches, is more:

Relational, in terms of a distinctly human and often longer-term perspective on the role of the public organization and its impact on the outside world; often this implies a reframing of the kind of value the organization is supposed to bring to citizens and society;

Networked, understood as a model that actively considers and includes a broad variety of societal actors to achieve public outcomes, including civic actors not often considered in past governance models;

Interactive, exhibiting increased awareness and more explicit use of (physical and virtual) artifacts in mediating purposeful interactions between the organization and citizens and other users and stakeholders; and,

Reflective, which is to say driven by a more qualitative, emphatic, subjective understanding of the organization’s ability to enact change.

This set of characteristics might be termed human-centred governance. It emphasizes bottom-up and highly differentiated processes and, relative to traditional governance models, the model is more “skeletal”, or even under-prescribed.

It places more emphasis on future-making than on the analysis of choice between already formed alternatives. Ultimately, human-centred governance poses a more radical perspective that starts with the needs, behaviours and experiences of citizens and challenges the governance legacy that most public managers have inherited.


Leading public design by Christian Bason can be ordered here for £19.99.

Find out more about impact, influence and engagement at Policy Press here.

Policy Press newsletter subscribers receive a 35% discount – sign up here.

The views and opinions expressed on this blog site are solely those of the original blog post authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the Policy Press and/or any/all contributors to this site.

1 Response to “Human-centred governance: transforming government from the outside-in”

  1. 1 DR SULAIMAN April 12, 2017 at 2:46 pm

    As a good Humanist who always wish the best for all humanity, I like your idea of Human-centred governance..That notion may be viable and practical for western countries with their 800 hundred million population..yet what about this idea in the rest of the world..what about this idea in ME, Indian subcontinent or African continent or Even in any part of Asian countries..
    It would take at least another 100 years to democracy grow in those countries…Naturally, western countries do not like to see thriving democracy in any part of the world except for the national interest..I could give many example to tell you how some western countries suppressed the idea of democracy in many countries…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Twitter Updates


Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print.

The work on the Policy Press blog is licensed under a Creative Commons licence.