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This section discusses some of the potential challenges involved in the application of service design in public service settings.

The issue of complexity links to how public services are guided by conflicting demands and values. For instance, efforts to develop user-centred services may easily come into conflict with competing demands such as the need to adhere to bureaucratic principles and ensure due process and equality of treatment. While service design is often presented as a way of addressing complexities, for instance as means for solving ‘wicked problems’, we propose that service design in the public sector requires the ability to understand and work with complexities and paradoxes embedded in the service context. Complexity, understood as competing demands and values, cannot be resolved, but understanding and even embracing the complexity can be vital for designing solutions suited to the context. Complexity also has to do with scale and with how different service processes are intertwined, so that making changes in one area often affects or is affected by other, interrelated processes.

Working with service design in public services requires the ability to reflect on the difference between designing solutions that aim to enhance private value for individual citizens (private value) and designing solutions that create value for a collective citizenry (public value).

The interests of individuals and the collective citizenry can coincide in many cases, but there are many examples of tensions between individual and collective values. When inviting individuals to provide ideas and suggestions for new designs and solutions, there is always a risk that the ideas resonate to the individuals participating in a design process, while collectives of citizens may not agree that the new solutions bring public value. Balancing and negotiating between creation of private and public value is central to service design in the public sector.

Service design advocates the involvement of users and other stakeholders to spur creativity and to ensure that those using the services have a say in how they are designed and developed. While this reasoning may be easy to follow, it is not necessarily easy to make space for comprehensive involvement processes. Involvement requires access to physical space, and it requires space in terms of resources such as time, money and people.

Moreover, aspects of coercion in various public services may challenge the assumptions that public services could and should be cocreated with service users, which is a central premise of service design. As with coercive services, designing services with vulnerable users also requires sensitivity and precautions when planning and preparing for involvement. It also involves the ability to balance inputs from service users with knowledge and experience of professionals and professional employees.

Service design is often presented as a holistic approach to the design and renewal of services. Holism refers to the ability to approach problems, user experiences and services processes holistically rather than in fragments. However, service design also places emphasis on iterative work and learning through testing. This often implies searching for new solutions on bits and pieces of broader service processes; to develop prototypes on these and iterate through tests and learning. There is a risk that these more narrow and focused iterations undermine the intended focus on holism.

Another contradiction relates to how service design involves the ability to challenge existing knowledge and practices, while it also requires the ability to create trust and work with people with often deep knowledge of how existing practices work and why things are done in particular ways in an organisation. Building trust to gain insights on existing practices, while challenging and questioning prevailing solutions and practices at the same time may entail demanding balancing acts.

Working with creativity and innovation require the ability to work with processes that can be confusing because the end result is not clear or defined. If it was, it would not be a creative or innovative process, because the answer or solution would be already defined. Getting people on board with this open way of working can be hard, perhaps especially in bureaucratic contexts, and it may take time to gain maturity or acceptance in the organisational culture. Thus, for a public service organisation to succeed in working with service design in purposeful ways, there may be need for cultural change. Borrowing a phrase from Donna Haraway (2016), we would say that working with service design requires the ability to ‘stay with the trouble’ in creative processes. By this we mean accepting that the journey can be messy and unpredictable and handling the potential unease involved in staying in places of ambiguity and uncertainty.