A design-led approach to service transformation

Julianne Coughlan, Service Design Manager at Cork County Council, where service design, customer service and digital transformation are coming together to change how services are designed with and delivered to citizens, outlines some insights for service transformation.

“Service design is an attitude”, says Coughlan as she outlines some of the challenges in delivering service transformation in the Ireland’s second largest local authority and biggest county.

Coughlan highlights how the Council, like many local authorities across Ireland had previously initiated various process changes in recent years, which tended to be back-office orientated and lacking a customer outcome focus.

Service design, she says, allows for a focus on people. This incorporates not only customers but also the staff delivering the services, “You need the right people involved in analysing your services, people who believe that services can change and improve for staff and for customers.”

“It’s less about the tools of transformation and more about the people,” she adds.

As a starting point, Coughlan says that the Council had to not only recognise the need for transformation but to actually identify what and where it needed to make changes.

In 2015 the Council conducted a perception survey with staff and the public, The research was revealing for a number of reasons. Firstly, it highlighted areas where the public wanted change but it also showed a difference of mindset between the public and staff. While 70 per cent of the public reported being satisfied with the service of their local authority, 70 per cent of staff believed that the public would report to being unhappy with the service.

Coughlan says; “What we took out of that was that internally we were buying into the perception often created about the public sector, often in the media and often negative. We were bought into the mindset that we were a culture that couldn’t change to deliver effective services.”

Explaining that such a culture can often be a barrier to change, she adds: “With service design and bringing people into that process, including talking to staff about the services they were providing, we found that ‘people’ is not often the part a public sector culture that is making change difficult.”

While the Service Design Manager recognises that there will always be a sample of people who are hesitant or unwilling to embrace change, she outlines that they found that the majority of people not only wanted to join the transformation journey for improvement in their own jobs but were also excited about the potential to improve customer service and interaction.

“Our conclusion was that more than anything, the barriers to change were old services. These were services that had never been ripped out, revised and put back in. Instead staff were expending a lot of energy doing work arounds of these old services to deliver customer needs.”

A further barrier recognised by the council was that of structure and the hierarchies that exist in many public sector organisations. These, Coughlan explains, “nurture silos” whether that be people, ideas or information and knowledge.


In order to breakdown these hierarchies, Coughlan outlines how the Council initiated the groundwork for change on those “pain points” highlighted by staff and the public. This groundwork came in the form of three key questions designed by senior management and distributed to all staff. These were:

  • what support is needed to change things?;
  • where can obstacles be removed?; and
  • how can space be made for innovation or change to happen?

Importantly, Cork County Council took the decision to create a dedicated unit to review services and transform services, with adequate space and resource.

As a starting point, the Council began with digitising services. Outlining the importance of having an initial focus, she says: “We knew it was what customers wanted and we also knew that it would deliver significant change to the organisation. We didn’t just digitise the front facing services but also went through the back-office services too.

The significant efficiencies recorded by the digitisation of these services include the automation of information for staff; the creation of electronic records which can be easily stored, searched and retrieved; and the setting of a minimum standard for data capture.

Coughlan believes that digitisation became a “trojan horse for innovation” within the organisation. “Digitisation became a method to relate the idea that change was happening. In being able to display the benefits of change we seen people buy into the idea of innovation.”

Offering a word of advice to others seeking to transform their services, Coughlan states that small is powerful. Warning against taking on too much too soon, she says: “get comfortable, limit risk and embed the change.”

In the context of working within national strategies and frameworks, Coughlan suggests that adequate room is given to innovation and change at local level. Those taking national considerations should consider how change can be supported at local level; what obstacles can be removed at national level; and how space can be made for innovation or change.

“Rather than a push to standardise and centralise services, there should be recognition to empower and enable transformations at a local level. We found that with service design keeping design as close as possible to the area where it is going to be consumed makes for a more fit for purpose service.”

The disconnected citizen   

Amidst service design and transformation, Coughlan highlights an awareness to ensure that people are not inadvertently disconnected. Discussing the need to engage all citizens, she highlights how standardisation of services can disconnect a segment of society and this must be mitigated against.

Concluding, Coughlan offers two further insights, the first is the need to design data into services that proves that service change is working. This entails ‘hard’ data such as recording key performance indicators (KPIs) but also soft data, including impact on customers. The second insight is the need to start change. Stating her belief that change drives further change, she adds: “Sometimes you just need to try something. Digitisation triggered a lot of change in our organisation but every organisation can identify what works for them.”

Barry Doyle

Since graduating with an MSc in Geographical Information Systems (GIS) in 1994 Barry has worked as a GIS / IT professional and business consultant in various roles in both the public and private sector in Ireland. With over 13 years’ experience working as a Project Leader in the Irish Local Government Sector Barry has been responsible for leading and delivering various innovative projects at both a Local Authority and Sectoral level with a particular focus on Digital Transformation, Geographical Information Systems, Information Management and Open Data.

Prior to joining Galway County Council in November 2018 Barry championed, defined and led the Digital Transformation Programme in Roscommon Country Council with the overall aim of embracing opportunities presented by ongoing advances in the digital technologies, broadband availability and capacity, and Cloud based enterprise solutions to transform how the Council provides services to, and interacts with, the citizens it serves. In line with this Barry completed a Special Certificate in Designing Innovative Services with Cork Institute of Technology in 2018.


Gemma Garvan

Gemma Garvan is Director of Informatics at St James’s Hospital in Dublin which last year became the first digital acute hospital in Ireland, which is the start of a landmark change for how care is delivered.  Gemma is an experienced Health Informatics Leader with a demonstrated history of working in the hospital and health care industry.  Prior to taking up her role at St James’s Hospital in 2018 she was Head of Access to Information at Healthlink. Gemma began work as an analyst programmer with The National Healthlink Project and moved into a project management role over a decade ago. Gemma has a BSc in computer science and software engineering and an MA from Trinity College in Dublin.

Barry Lowry

Barry Lowry is CIO for the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, a position he was appointed to in 2016. He is tasked with delivering the Public Service ICT Strategy. Prior to 2016, he spent almost 35 years in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) on work ranging from the programming of mainframe computers to operating as a team leader in the design of client server systems. For the five years prior to his appointment, Lowry was the director who oversaw the establishment of ICT shared services in NICS. He also operated as the Head of Profession for ICT. In 2011 he was voted the Northern Ireland IT Professional of the Year by his associates.

Aileen McHugh
Kieran O’Hea

A native of Cork, Kieran O’Hea is Leicester City Council’s Head of Smart Cities, where he is leading the implementation of a Smart City Strategy that is city-needs led and demand-driven. He was formerly Chief Digital Officer of Brisbane, where he led the development of the city’s digital economy strategy. Before focusing on city strategies, Kieran led the development of digital strategies for a number of government agencies in Dublin. He has also worked for the European Commission, developing funding programmes in the area of digital content.

Donal Spellman


Tim Willoughby

Tim Willoughby is Head of Digital Services and Innovation at An Garda Síochána. He was formerly CTO of the LGMA, with over 20 years in a number of Senior Management and Technical Roles in the Local Government Sector. He has been working in the Public service for almost 28 years. Tim has a Civil Engineering Degree from TCD and a Masters in Innovation from the University of Ulster.

Moyagh Murdock

Moyagh Murdock has been in the transport sector for over 20 years in various capacities. Currently, Moyagh is the Chief Executive Officer at the Road Safety Authority. In her early career she spent 10 years in the airline industry having worked at Bombardier in Belfast as an aircraft systems engineer. She was then Chief Operating Officer for Bus Éireann having joined the Company in 2007 as the Deputy Chief Mechanical Engineer with responsibility for the fleet maintenance and garage operations. In 2012 she was awarded an MBA from Dublin City University (DCU) and holds a Certificate of Professional Competence in Road Transport Operations Management.

Caron Alexander

Caron Alexander is Director of Digital Shared Services at the Northern Ireland Civil Service.  She has more than 30 years of experience in the UK public sector.  Caron is responsible for providing ICT shared services to 27,000 staff, for the NI citizen portal www.nidirect.gov.uk and contact centre services, delivering the NI Digital Transformation Programme and driving forward the NI Open Data agenda.  Previously Caron held a number of senior technical, programme and change management roles in the Northern Ireland Civil Service.

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Michael Redmond
Michael Redmond is Chief Operating Officer at the Office of the CIO/eHealthIreland. A highly experienced leader within eHealth and Digital, Michael has a reputation for delivering results, driving excellence and building capability in each and every one of his career roles to date. Hugely experienced across the public sector, he is known to be acutely customer focussed; his strategy of simplifying the digital agenda resonates with the C-suite, staff and the general public alike. As COO, Michael manages the largest ICT investment budget in the whole public sector. Also a qualified and certified CIO, Michael studied Computer Science at Trinity College Dublin.
In 2008, Stella founded Annertech, Ireland’s leading open-source digital agency. Since its inception, Annertech have grown to become the "go to" Drupal experts in Ireland and work with a variety of clients in both the private and public sectors. Stella is an active contributor to the Drupal open-source content management system, and maintains many modules including Commerce Realex, Commerce Donate and Code Review. She is a member of the international Drupal Security Team, and was recently chairperson of the Drupal Ireland Association.

Dominic Byrne is Head of Information Technology with Fingal County Council and has 26 years’ experience working in IT.  He holds a Degree in Information Technology and a Masters in Internet Systems.  He is responsible for managing the provision of IT services in Fingal County Council and his current interests include Digital Government, Smart Cities and Civic Tech.  He is a member of the Smart Dublin Executive Committee and the Public Bodies Working Group on Open Data.