Louise Downe

Restructing Britain

'Disjointed incrementalism' characterises public service design: where services are altered and adapted by changing political drivers, professional fashions, shifting institutional norms and boundaries, and the biased lessons of past experience

– Restarting Britain 2: Design and Public Services

All the usual disclaimers aside (few would argue that this report isn't needed, nor that it contains a lot of really good points), this quote from the latest Design Commission report worries me. What is wrong with responding incrementally to 'shifting political norms'? Aren't shifting political norms supposed to respond to shifting social norms? And more broadly, isn't 'incrementalism', disjointed or otherwise, how evolution works?

The quote fits in with a re-emerging attitude to design that appears to believe the world can be strategically planned, piece-by-piece. To do this, it's argued, design needs to become ever more 'strategic' - morphing from UI to UX, from service design to system design.

I don't care how you label it, but by any name this is modernism - a belief that the world can be designed by a small number of people towards some definite, knowable end-state. A belief that, for all the simplicity it brought - wielded debilitating authoritarianism and institutionalism with equal measure.

Strange then, that we should start to talk about it in the context of public service.

The successes of modernism were narrowly defined systems within the public space - transport, gas, oil and water. The problems they faced may have gotten larger or more complex as the network grew - but they were unlikely to change form completely.

Bar some famous examples, we've watched those other, larger structures of modernism revert to disorder with years of neglect, weather and weeds.

The problems we face today are those same problems that brought down modernism. We can't control them with one solution, strategy or 'five circled grid'. But just because you can't control something, doesn't mean it can't be changed.

Progress in science happens because we accumulate a collective knowledge. But in traditional, two-party politics we don't learn from the other team, we react to them. And when our own team are in power, the mechanisms of the state take so long to change that we struggle to see any direct cause and effect, making it hard for anyone to learn from anything.

But when we change things directly on the ground we can observe cause and effect. Over time we learn what works and what doesn't.

This is disjointed incrementalism. The kind that cannot be shoehorned into any strategy, program, work-stream or project. Perhaps it will force us to take the incremental decisions we make with more care and consideration, and who knows, things might change.