South Kesteven District Council needed to tackle the housing problem in its area. It also wanted to create a sustainable business model that could withstand increasing pressure on services and shrinking funding from central government.
During 2016, as part of a cultural transformation Programme and efficiency drive, South Kesteven District Council had been trialling new ways of working. Lean methodologies were used to challenge their established processes. After seeing some success they were looking for a bigger challenge to tackle.
Like many local authorities across the UK, they faced a housing problem and one that they needed to solve to deliver against the government’s new homes targets. Here was an opportunity to use design thinking to completely rethink the way they were delivering housing in the district. Design Council’s Design in the Public Sector Programme, delivered in partnership with the Local Government Association, would be the vehicle through which they explored the problem.
It’s about the council becoming the master of its own destiny ten years from now.
Aiden Rave, Chief Executive, South Kesteven Council
But it would also prove to be the catalyst for a complete reframing of the original challenge. The question of how to accelerate housing delivery became one of economic development for South Kesteven as a whole.
In South Kesteven, housing delivery was failing to meet the need. 14,000 new homes were required by 2036, but the rate of growth was 200 houses a year short of the 700 needed to achieve this target. Customer feedback showed that the houses coming to market were often not of the right type. This was typical of the challenges in a district with sharp differences in prices between areas, and a sizeable waiting list for social housing.
The leadership team recognised that the housing issue was central to the council’s growth and success. Without solving it they would not be able to achieve the level of self-sufficiency required by central government by 2019. They had an ambitious set of goals to provide appropriate housing for everyone. But they also wanted to acquire a new toolkit to approach problems that could be used across the organisation. They wanted design thinking to be at the heart of everything the council did.
The council had already been working with the One Public Estate government initiative to identify and remove barriers to land coming forward for housing. They knew they had enough land to build the houses they needed, but they still faced market challenges. Developers were ‘land banking’ to control prices, and there was a need for more affordable housing.
The council knew that to realise their goals they needed even more collaboration. They needed to attain a deeper understanding of the needs of all the stakeholders in the local housing market on both the supply and the demand side, and to challenge their own assumptions about the way that the market was working. In this way they hoped to better understand which levers they could pull to effect change.
Engagement and action
Day one of the Design in the Public Sector Programme introduced Design Council’s Framework for Innovation, and its globally recognised Double Diamond as a new way of exploring the issue. This prompted the team to question previous assumptions about the problem at hand, so that it could then deliver the right solution. The issue of housing provision was reframed into one of the district’s economic development. This was a challenge in which housing solutions would play a huge part, but that embraced many other areas of the council’s work.
This was about placemaking – about South Kesteven as a place that developers want to build houses, a place where businesses would want to locate and invest, and where families would want to move to.
Paul Thomas, Regeneration Lead, InvestSK
Integral to finding a solution would be the ability to achieve an evidence-based approach to the design of services, based on a greater understanding of all customers’ needs. The Design in the Public Sector Programme introduced the team to tools that would enable them to achieve this back in the real world, where everyday demands wouldn’t stop to allow them to create change.
Developing strategy – the new housing consultation
The first application of the new techniques was to the crucial housing strategy. The team ran roundtable discovery sessions using techniques from the Programme. Attendees included elected members, private landlords and developers. A new kind of dialogue was created, one which was inclusive and acknowledged the voices of everyone with a stake in the district’s plans for housing. The resulting consultation document took care to reflect the language used in the sessions by different participants. It also contained new ideas which, in the words of one of the team leaders “would never have been produced by a housing officer”.
Usually the council receives a poor response to such consultations, with a few ‘usual suspects’ offering feedback. On this occasion many more people engaged with the consultation and the team received over 70 responses. They credit this entirely to the new and inclusive discovery techniques they used. Since this success established platforms such as Overview and Scrutiny Committees have adopted a similar methodology and have become more active and dynamic groups as a result.
Design for the customer – the council tax bill
Returning to work with their redefined brief the team were immediately challenged to put the new approaches into practice. Design in the Public Sector had coincided with the next phase of the customer-centred transformation Programme at the council, redesigning the council tax billing process. They brought together their colleagues at the council who were working on the project and briefed them on the double diamond and customer journey methods. They helped them to walk in customers’ shoes and experience for themselves the process of registering for council tax. They redesigned the council tax bill accordingly.
At the next billing period the council sent out over 65,000 bills and the advice lines braced themselves for the usual deluge of calls from confused customers, but due to the new design this didn’t happen. Call handlers reported a much lower volume of calls from people needing clarification about their council tax bill.
A ninety-year-old customer told us it was the first time in her life that she’d understood her council tax bill.
Organisation wide ownership of change – embedding practices
Design processes and methods learnt on the Design in the Public Sector Programme are now used in almost every project. As a result, the council are seeing a more agile and speedy approach to problems and feedback from a far wider range of views than previously.
To publicly embed the new practices in the organisation, they transformed their annual all staff meeting from a format of presentations and slides to a session involving everyone using Design in the Public Sector techniques. Staff were challenged to feedback on five opportunity statements. The resulting 2000 pieces of feedback were refined and organised and fed into the council’s property redesign project.
The team also adapted a feedback method learned on the Programme called ‘Rose, Thorn, Bud’ for the whole organisation. This has enabled them to get improved feedback, speeding up meetings and giving them access to a much wider range of views across the whole council.
Permanent cultural change – the Lightbox Programme
As a consequence of attending the Programme, the leadership team at the council recognised the need to create space within the organisation for innovation. To tackle this this requirement, a new unit within the council, known as ‘Lightbox’, was conceived. The aim of the project is to create a platform to enable new ideas to be prototyped and tested in a safe environment. Successful prototypes will then be rolled out.
Lightbox is now a functioning unit in the council. It has a small permanent staff, supplemented by talented secondees known as ‘plug-ins’ from the wider council. Taking this flexible and inclusive approach even further Lightbox also brings in external professionals as ‘plug-ins’ and works with other locally- important organisations. Recently they worked with a charity that provides services to young people, helping them to redefine the problems they were trying to solve. In this way the design thinking techniques the team learned are filtering out from the council itself and into the wider public sector ecosystem in South Kesteven.
Success for South Kesteven will mean much more than an improvement in housing provision. The new approaches they are using are enabling cultural change across the organisation and within the whole district, which will bring greater efficiency and agility. The ambition is to make the council self-sufficient and sustainable by 2020. Design thinking will play a huge part in that transformation.
Assistant Director for Growth and Development