Encouraging staff to be more empowered

In 2015, Devon County Council (DCC) was part of the south-west Design in the Public Sector Programme, delivered by Design Council in partnership with the Local Government Association. The team’s challenge focused on developing new, engaging and innovative ways for employees to become highly immersed in the aims of the organisation, self-directed in their learning and willing to change their thinking and behaviours.

Design in the public sector

The Challenge

DCC recognised that, in the changing space of public services being more agile and responsive in the way it thinks as an organisation is now more important than ever. It also saw that any proposed solutions needed to be suitable for the council’s rural context and the diverse makeup of its staff. It wanted to encourage staff to be more innovative and empowered.

Carl Haggerty, Digital Communications Manager at DCC, explained: “For an organisation experiencing rapid change we need a high level of engagement and personal transformation by our employees to produce the most effective outcomes and services for the people of Devon. If we massively increase participation in the organisation’s goals through engagement and learning, we believe this will help our employees create innovative solutions and be inspired to do better things.”

Devon County Council had developed an operating model in response to emerging challenges and opportunities facing the organisation. The model describes a high level framework for change by setting out a number of principles, values and behaviours which embody the way that the organisation wants to work.

Engagement and action

The team, comprising Kevin Gillick, Carl Haggerty and Jo Prince -White, was excited about the Programme, particularly as they had tried a few ideas – trialling  an ‘Innovation Newsletter’ for instance, but admitted these were ‘just guesses’ and not based on need.

Kevin Gillick explained:“We hadn’t asked what people really wanted; we were hoping to be able go back and clarify the problem we were trying to solve, giving us space to gain new insights and learning.

The beginning of the DiPS Programme generated hundreds of new thoughts about the challenge they were facing. Aware that a many solutions are created in response to the wrong problem, they spent time really trying to understand the essence of their issue knowing this would save time later on.

The core design principles they were introduced to on the  Programme,such as being person-centered, working visually, being collaborative and being iterative resonated with the team and helped move things along very quickly. These techniques have now been used to challenge and improve a range of existing activities.

The programme made the DCC team approach issues in a different way, with being user-centred now increasingly important. Talking to experts and having Design Council’s Framework, Process and Method explained brought the whole thing together.

The design thinking approach has provided officers with new skills and techniques to test and change our original design challenge which has evolved throughout the programme.

Gillick continued:“We found the programme packed full of challenge, opportunity, learning and amazing conversations with peers and people from outside the sector who inspired us. Our way of working and thinking has definitely shifted. We were forever surprised how new ideas emerge from a combination of spending focus and energy on the challenge and letting go of previous ideas.”


30 staff members from across the council have now received training on user insight workshops and building skills and capabilities in user analysis. This has increased knowledge of design thinking and greater interest in ethnographic research, which will improve understanding in shaping and developing services.

Devon County Council continues to reshape the way it thinks about and delivers services, with additional training and development planned.

Update: October 2016

Since January 2016, the council has had multiple ideas of projects they would like to take forward which the programme had an effect on.

One of which, using a similar model to the NHS’s ‘100 days of change’ project, saw the council ask for internal change stories with the ambition to collect and publish them on the website. It also had an internal design competition to design a logo for the project itself.

The original aim was to collect 100 stories, but the team found this to be slightly unrealistic. However, approximately 30 high-quality stories were collated and published. The team then monitored the readership of these web pages and found that they were very popular, engaging people from all over the county.

A second piece of work was also run on how the council approached performance appraisals. This started around Easter time in 2016 with a ‘Hackathon’ – where a mini - design process including 6 groups of council members produced 6 prototypes. Using the Design in the Public Sector Programme model, the council then took these prototypes through 30-60 day process.

Kevin Gillick said: “When we went through this process, we suddenly realised why Design Council ask you to ensure that you have the five Programme days in your diary months in advance – we quickly realised how time management can have a major impact on the success of the project!

However, we got four of the six groups’ prototypes past the finishing post, and had some great learnings along the way.”

This project produced four different ‘products’ for managers to use for appraisals. These ranged from simply tweaking the original appraisal forms, to completely scrapping them and having a continuous, one-to-one appraisal process using simple electronic software.

Gillick continued:

What was noticeable was that the teams had the design process and the techniques we’d learned on the Programme in mind all the time – always prototyping, iterating, testing – thinking about change and using those processes all the time. Plus we actively encouraged others in the organisation to do the same. We continue to use and talk about the skills. We’ll shortly be kicking off another piece of work, which will definitely be affected by what we learned on the Programme.



Devon logic model (PDF)