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Why we need Legal Design to craft Public Services

It is necessary to rethink and consider unconventional, innovative approaches

By our guest blogger Franziska Jensen

Why we need legal design to craft public services

A visit to the authorities can be nerve-wracking for all sides. Are we meeting the needs of everyone involved by setting a conflict-minimizing, cooperative, satisfying and efficient way? The simple answer is: no. It is necessary to rethink and consider unconventional, innovative approaches.


This is where (public) legal design comes into play. Interaction between authorities and citizens should be intuitive and inclusive so that public services can fulfil their sovereign tasks for the common good in the best possible way. As a German lawyer and design thinker, let me share my experiences.

The image of the hunchback civil servant

What do Germans think about when you say the word, ‘public authorities’? They’ll tell you about drab facilities with heavy desks, dark green lampshades, and coffee-loving employees who wear sandals with socks in all seasons. Other descriptors include sluggishness, a lack of willingness to perform or act solution-oriented, inflexibility, and excessive formalism.


In particular, the documents the average person must read or fill out are complex, lengthy, opaque, and incomprehensible. Yet the task must be done because the person is seeking a legally binding certification or government approval for something.


So, how can legal design tackle the alien behemoth that is ‘officialise’? Let’s explore.

Why it's not all bad

While often lambasted, bureaucracy is there for a reason. It is to execute decisions only of the democratically legitimized legislature and to protect against arbitrary state action. With the lessons learned from Weimar and keeping German history in mind with the Nazi reign of terror, it is no coincidence that the mills of authorities grind slowly, as the saying goes. 


The German system was designed to prevent individual interest groups from gaining too much power too quickly. Formal regulations strictly bind all official actions. And for public authorities, two enforceable fundamental principles apply in particular: 


  1. The primacy of the law, which means the executive power may not take any measures that violate legal provisions
  2. The reservation of the law, which means public authorities may not take action without being authorized to do so by law.


Both are essential for a just state and must align with all administrative action. However, excessive and unnecessary bureaucracy leads to resentment and waste of resources. 

Reasons for engaging with public authorities

To address this deep German resentment of burucracy, we first need to ask why people feel this way. To do this, we may look at people’s administrative experiences. 


The occasions on which people in Germany must deal with public authorities are manifold and often existential. Alongside applications for passports and driver’s licenses, there might be the birth of a child, moving to another federal state, or migrating from abroad. Some occasions are burdensome life events such as the sudden death of a family member, the loss of a job and need for financial support, old-age poverty, or having to leave home overnight to find protection from war and persecution in a different country. 


Given this, it is unsurprising that a visit to the authorities can be emotionally demanding and associated with great uncertainty. 

“A visit to the authorities can be emotionally demanding and associated with great uncertainty.”

Today's civil citizen

The self-image of citizens is changing. It is shifting away from being an object of official care towards becoming an autonomous individual who wants to participate and take action on their responsibility. As the need for participation increases, the willingness to accept authority decisions and meet specific requirements decreases.


In today’s world, people are used to the benefits of digitization in everyday life, mainly through the provision of services and tools from private providers that help to make life easier. Of course, this kind of digital convenience is also expected in dealings with public authorities


People demand that the state introduces life-enhancing applications for the common good. Legislators, politicians and administrative leaders must be part of the cultural change. They must meet citizens’ diverse and dynamic needs and address them at eye and ability levels. In order to do so, it is essential to reveal the pain points and reframe them into needs to initiate a change of perspective before developing possible solutions. 

Clash of the pain points

According to my personal experience and additional research, the pain points start with the text. This comes in long and convoluted sentences in small font sizes without clear paragraphs or a summary of the essentials. It contains terms that occur in the fewest vocabularies and do not exist in some languages at all. 


It continues with the lack of transparency of internal processes and procedural steps, so the sense of disclosing certain information is not apparent, and trust is lost. The references to relevant legal regulations does not help, as these are often not comprehensible. 


Worse still, the people affected feel they are placed in a helpless position in which they need legal assistance and an explanation for every request. They feel like just being a number in the system and fear increased costs for getting justice. This often results in not enforcing their rights at all. Due to limited capacities and the complex paperwork to manage, lengthy proceedings will likely result. 


This puts a strain not only on those affected but also on the public administration itself, because: 

  • The authorities are often overburdened, and the state employees are confronted with many citizen concerns to which they must respond in a legally compliant manner. 
  • Their priority is to work correctly and thoroughly to justify any action before the law and not make any mistakes. 
  • They are under the supervision of their principals and must fear complaints. 
  • They are required to consider their decisions as appropriate to the individual case while at the same time addressing requests as quickly as possible. 
  • They must constantly implement new regulations, meet the changing demands of society, work carefully and thus contribute to a functioning modern economic and social society. 


The people in public service with an innovative mindset are often stuck in traditional structures, making it difficult to make a change and establish new working methods without the support of superiors. Without the openness to cultural change, they are at a loss or find themselves involved in initiatives outside their working hours. 

The superpower of legal design

A core aspect of legal design is to focus on the people for whom the law is ultimately made. This also applies to the administration as a regulatory body and service provider. The underlying needs are as diverse as the people and their cases themselves. We can have citizens’ needs, such as: recognizing and appreciating them as humans in their life situation; more orientation and guidance through the jungle of laws and regulations; and security and control over their future. The servants’ needs might be: the recognition of their efforts and contribution; the desire for more flexibility and self-actualization; or a minimum of structure and reliability. When we make these insights the center of our decision-making, we create value by making people feel seen, heard, and involved. Moreover, we can make cultural change possible. 

What to consider when designing for the general public

When designing for the common good  (especially when public services are involved), here are some fundamental points to keep in mind for each public project:

You are there to learn, not to know everything, and without talking to the users, you cannot know their needs. You can only guess. 

Involve people from the beginning of the process. Have representatives of each user group, starting with the various types of a citizen, including public authority employees at every level, and incorporate their feedback.

The relationship between state and citizen (or within state hierarchies) is not a relationship of subordination but a team of equals.

Transforming public services gives rise to a legitimate public interest. Address this with the help of feedback from representatives to their communities and back. This avoids the impression of backroom decisions and builds trust.

Finding a solution comes at the end of the process. The first step is to share the wildest ideas in a creative brainstorming session and make them tangible. Only in the selection process that follows is it a matter of evaluating these ideas according to possible legal conformity, incorporation into the authority’s ultimate decision-making responsibility, and general feasibility. 

Fulfil as many different needs as possible and enable people of all kinds for better accessibility. Always reflect on (invisible) abilities, culture, language, financial situation, age, identity, education, habits, stereotypes, and more. 

Every solution is just a prototype in a constantly changing society. It must be reviewed and adapted through continuous testing. It must meet future users’ needs and adjust to dynamically developing legal requirements. 

When dependent on public funding, new approaches must be justified by rapid results. However, a systemic approach is more sustainable. It is much easier to develop suitable solutions from a functioning system than to build one right solution from a group of isolated, rigid, non-functioning systems.

And what's in it for us at the end of it all?

With inclusive public legal design, we can address the needs of all stakeholders involved. We can reduce frustration, provide anticipatory legal protection and avoid never-ending legal battles with the waste of money and resources. By giving entire executive systems a future-proof redesign, we can help them act legally compliant, more sustainable, agile, and efficient. We can build a new administrative self-image. With that, we speed up processes and, in the best case, allow more time to react to unpredictable individual needs or special events. 


A modern, cooperative and lean state can be realized through innovative administrative action. We can break down barriers and reduce fears by addressing citizens at eye level, people to people, instead of citizen against state power. We can make government services inclusive and counteract disenchantment. 


By offering a space for every voice to be heard and integrated, we can create democratizing effects and give access to justice. We can empower the people by supporting them in comprehending their civil rights and duties. Through participation, we help people not feel helpless or worse: as an object of state action. In this way, we crystalise our value system and strengthen the most important of our constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights, human dignity. 


So – let’s go!


Written by: Franziska Jensen

About The Author: Franziska Jensen

Franziska Jensen is a lawyer and design thinker from Hamburg, Germany. She works as Junior Legal Designer for Astrid Kohlmeier, a German Legal Design Pioneer. 


During her studies, she voluntarily provided legal advice for refugees and supported them in any bureaucratic matters. She specialized in environmental law and conducted research on how to meet human needs in legally obligatory planning procedures with mediation. Recently she did a Design Thinking Partner Project for the HPI in collaboration with the German Chambers of Commerce to make the most out of Green Tech Knowhow.


Franziska is passionate about transforming the legal industry and public sector by redesigning overly complex procedures from a human- and life-centered perspective. She believes that a creative, systemic, interdisciplinary, and inclusive approach is the best way to legal and societal innovation.


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