… the Big Society

February 16, 2011 at 2:49 pm Leave a comment

“Rather than focusing on how participation can work (or be made to work) for people, [the Big Society debate] has instead focused on how participation can work for government.”

Tim Hughes, Involve

There’s been a lot of discussion about how the public can run local services as part of the Big Society. Libraries are the main focus, but public toilets are creeping into the mix.

It’s presented as an opportunity!

“*cough* we’re going to close your public toilets *cough* but HERE’S THIS GREAT OPPORTUNITY TO RUN A TOILET FOR YOURSELVES!!!!


It won’t come as a shock that people are not signing up in their droves to such an idea.

It will also not come as a shock that this is seen as a cover for making cuts: “We can’t afford to run the toilets, and if you really wanted them you’d be offering to run them for us”

Indeed this message is already confused since it’s not the man-on-the-street that the council are asking to take over facilities; it’s the smaller parish council or other legal entities. Whether the parish councils can afford to run public toilets when the district council cannot is a whole other story, though these guys are pretty chipper.

The problem that I have with this whole approach to the Big Society is exactly what the opening quote from the Involve blog hits on – it’s all about how the public can help the government out of a fix, not about how the government can help the public to create the society that they want (and that they want to get involved in).

I like the Big Society.

I like it because of how I’ve chosen to interpret it: as an opportunity to involve the public in the design of public services. Ideas around co-design (or co-participation) or Transformation Design (or service design, there’s a lot of overlapping terminology) have been bubbling away for years and through the Big Society there’s an opportunity to mainstream this approach in order to create people-centred public services.

What does this mean?

I’m making this up a bit so feel free to disagree with me, but here are some thoughts on how to go about it, using public toilets as the obvious example!

Too often in the public sector a policy or strategy is thought up, drawn up, then put out to public consultation in order to tick a box get public approval. The designer’s approach would be to do… the exact opposite.

Well before any strategy has been conceived you need to engage the public. This is so that you can find out about the lives of the people who will use it.

How do you engage the public?

  • Start with something easy, like a questionnaire.

Show that you value and need the public’s involvement, and that you will be designing the service based on their suggestions – this isn’t another tick-box exercise.

Your questionnaire will ask the public their thoughts on and use of the current public toilet provision, but don’t stop there.

Ask them about other aspects of their lives that could be relevant – where they work, where they shop, which parts of the borough they spend time in.

Ask about their eating habits, who they live with, who they spend time with, what a typical day looks like, how they travel.

Accept that not everything that you ask may turn out to be useful!

  • Take contact details so that you can ask for their future participation in something with a little more commitment, like keeping a week’s diary of their trips away from home, or making a map of the areas that they visit.

Approach a range of existing community groups if you need more participants: parent networks, disability charities, older people’s forums. Bear in mind that a solution that’s suitable for those with more extreme needs will suit our less-demanding man-on-the-street just as well.

  • The next step might include a workshop, interviews or some sort of working-committee.

Each step of increased participation will put more and more people off: some don’t have the time; some don’t have the interest; but the few that stay involved are investing in the project and will give more of their time and effort to see it succeed.

Also, it seems like a good idea to keep the original questionnaire participants informed of what you’re doing so that they see that you weren’t lying when you said that you valued their views! Maybe they’ll get back in touch, or participate further in the next project.

I don’t wish to paint a rose-tinted picture. The public are not a single entity who all have the same needs and priorities when it comes to public toilets. Or anything.

But that’s true whether you include them or ignore them; we’ll be more sympathetic to the needs of our fellow residents (and to the difficult job that the council face when trying to please everyone) if we’re discussing it face-to-face.

We’re also not stupid. We know there are budget constraints and we know we can’t demand a 20-cubicle public facility in a prime-spot of real estate when there simply isn’t the money or necessity.

What we can do is assess the options, prioritise our needs, and suggest which solutions might work, and which might work better.

By engaging with the public and creating a public service that fits into their lives you’ll have a well-designed public toilet provision that not only meets the needs of the public; it’s been designed by the public.

They’ll use it, value it and care about it.

You never know, they might even help you to run it.


Entry filed under: Politics, Service Design. Tags: , , , , .

Idea #8: Map your Community Toilet Scheme Idea #9: Crowdsource your Community Toilet Scheme

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