Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks. But of course, if you dig deeper, it’s really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn’t what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really work out what it’s all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don’t take the time to do that.

Steve Jobs from Wired in 1994

This seems to me to be true of design in our welfare systems too. People are always in such a hurry, working so hard, but thinking so little. What this leads to in the end is poorly thought-through public policies.

It is not the lack of ‘research’ that is the problem – no design innovation ever came from research. But design should be driven by a deeper understanding of the problems that need to be solved and the outcomes desired. This understanding is certainly informed by research, but it also needs to be informed by an understanding of human psychology and a commitment to basic ethical principles. Without this moral and social realism new designs will just be short-term fixes that will fall apart under the slightest pressure.

Having been responsible for designing several new systems for the organisation of welfare systems (individual budgets, self-directed support, resource allocation systems etc.) nothing is more depressing than to see people get enthusiastic about new ideas without making any real attempt to understand how and why they work. This is what then lead to such poor implementation. Without any deeper understanding people implement a process, e.g. the seven steps to self-directed support, as if it were a magical formula.

Sometimes it is better that people are sceptical and resistant than that they naively embrace innovations for the sake of novelty. Innovation must serve powerful moral purposes; it must right real wrongs. Otherwise it will be wasted effort and distraction.