Swedish design for public policy

Orchestrating the two days was Per-Anders Hillgren, an ”old” acquaintance of mine from Malmö University. It was an opportunity to meet with the new generation of designers from Scandinavian design schools, and also to get a feel for this field that is still emerging, even in this renowned design country. 

Design in the public sector, opportunities and challenges
The two days started off meeting with some 30 academics, design researchers and students, public sector representatives – notably Bjarne Stenquist, strategist in charge of social innovation at the City of Malmö, representatives from the innovation policy field and from Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SALAR) – which would be the equivalent of a combination of L’Association des Régions de France (ARF) and L’Association des Maires de France (AMF) in France. Another participant, Stefan Holmlid, from the University of Linköping, is working on a report on service design to be presented shortly to the Swedish Parliament (Riksdagen), mirroring a similar work in the British Parliament.

The managerial ideology facing practice
The main presentation aimed at exploring the managerial practices of public administrations, and help the designers to ”get to know the enemy”, as it’s author put it. The presentation by Bengt Jacobson focused on the prevalence of  “new public management”. He confirms what we also experience in France. Bengt is a researcher at the University of Södertörn and engaged in The Academy of Public Administration. To him, we are now at the ultimate stage of “the audit society” (and of management by objectives, results orientation, performance methods such as LEAN, audits). This managerial ideology has never been held in such a high regard without being questioned by politics.

Precise and operable goals, impact easy to measure, pursuit of rationality and organisational logic …in reality goals are still fuzzy, ambiguous, and the impact of policy is still hard to assess. The “new public management” is trying to build an integrated control system. However, it only achieves in creating “rituals of rationality”, an accelerating expansion of bureaucracy, and an attitude of contempt for politics. Once a reform is put in place, it is rarely used by politicians, who then prefer avoiding it if they really want to govern.

The present system is based on control, on the separation of tasks – particularly between politics and administration – on the obsession with results, competition, audit and compliance…while we instead should be focussing our efforts on trust, holistic approaches (systems), cooperation, learning and innovation.

The problem is that the present managerial system is solidly rooted in the DNA of public administration. For most public officials in a leading position, the problem is never in the system itself, but in the fact that it is not yet sufficiently implemented!

Bengt suggests some lessons from history to guide what we should do now

–       focus on systems in holistic approaches rather than on each organisation in their own right ;

–       re-evaluate the political  dimension behind these managerial issues

–       take into account the strong capacity for inertia in public organisations.

Bengt reminds us of the discussions on social engineering already in the 1960s.

Designing publics, publics designing : design roles in social innovation
The second conference was public and gathered some 200 professionals – juniors and veterans, design students, consultants, researchers, etc. The first part focused on our work at La 27e Région, and on “Public & Collaborative”, a publication based on research in the DESIS research network. This work was presented by Andrea Botero (Aalto University, Finland) and Per-Anders Hillgren (University of Malmö). The questions and debates where all familiar: the legitimacy of the designer, the political responsibilities of the designer, the visions carried by the designer; questions about language and communication, scaling and impact, sustainability: how to make sure design projects have a positive impact, and that negative side effects are at a minimum?

The issues of pluridisciplinarity was also debated, where one strong idea stood out: Rather than extending the field of intervention of disciplines (design, sociology, etc), maybe all disciplines should accept to reduce themselves a little (“degrader”) to make space for the other disciplines? (For example the ethnologist who can tolerate an immersion of 3 weeks rather than 3 years, to allow the timing of an experiment to be compatible with others involved?)

And what does this all mean for La 27e Région? Design is well known to Swedes. But what seems to be of keen interest to our colleagues is the system of formal and informal alliances that we have formed between a (small but mobile!) do-tank: a community of committed professionals, an association of elected representatives in all the French regions, a growing number of civil servants familiar with design based approaches, research institutions and researchers, schools and training all over France, etc. These links are weak, but enable a dynamic development slightly under the “official” radars, but on multiple levels and truly significant.

Anyhow, there seems to be a strong motivation in the discussions with students, and there are many coming from design schools in Stockholm, Malmö in the south, Umeå in the north of Sweden. You can sense however, that this new territory, and a slight awkwardness from the leadership of the schools. Just like in France, they still grapple with design in the public sector.

Maybe one regret: behind the same words, we are not talking about the same ”public sector” and there is still confusion. Some talk about ”community organizing”, like for example Alinsky, without making it explicit. Others talk about the relationship between the citizen and the public administration, others still about urban design (like Philippe Gargov in the excellent dernier Millénaire 3) and still others of modernisation of public services, or even the ”making of public policy”. Some more clarity would not hurt…

You can find the conference on video here.


Written by Stéphane Vincent
Director at La 27e région

This text was originally posted on the blog for La 27th Region


*Forum for Social Innovation Sweden, Swedish Faculty for Design Research and Research Education, annual Industrial Design seminar at Konstfack University College of Arts, Crafts and Design, Critical Studies in Architecture at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Interactive Institute Swedish ICT.


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