For the government’s collaboration platform ‘Agenda Stad,’ Marjorie Bakker and I gave an interview about the value of design in auditing. This Dutch platform enables collaborations between cities, social partners, and the national government to achieve SDG 11: “Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable.” The interview was published in their e-magazine, which you can find here in Dutch.

This is the English translation:

Since over four years, the Netherlands Court of Audit has had a dedicated team that utilizes the value of design in auditing, known as the Design Audit Studio. Its four designers collaborate with auditors to enhance the impact of their audits. Design thinking is at the core of their approach, as explained by design researchers Marjorie Bakker and Linda Meijer-Wassenaar. What benefits does this bring to them?

The value of design at the Netherlands Court of Audit (NCA) is now mainly about thinking in a human-centered manner, creating a shared vision, and discovering new ways to act – from start to end. The Design Audit Studio (DAS) enables auditors to continue focusing on what is needed to transform their thorough knowledge into actions. These actions not only help the national government to improve, but more specifically address who should act – who is the human behind the concept of ‘government’?

Visual stories are nice, the process is even better

The DAS was initiated by Linda Meijer-Wassenaar. Linda has been working at the NCA for 14 years. She started as a sociologist and increased the use of visuals in her audit work, which at that time was not often used in audit reports. “Our board supported the use of visuals. More and more, I joined teams to discover visual stories in their audits together.

She decided to do a Masters in design research at the Willem de Kooning Academy, an art academy. There, she learned that visual stories are nice, but the process that designs those stories is even more interesting and can be of use for auditing. “Traditional scientific research is mainly linear, focuses on text and on the correct content. A designer, on the other hand, works iteratively (step-by-step and testing), focuses on the meaning for people, and uses a lot of visuals. Those two perspectives and methods can strengthen each other.” That pitch was sold, and the DAS started in 2018.

Concretize the abstract

But what exactly is the added value of design thinking? According to Meijer-Wassenaar, the value of design for auditors is making abstract concepts concrete. “Auditors use abstract words, abstract thinking – a lot is happening inside your head. The value of design is about transforming knowledge into action, concretizing that audit knowledge for your audience. The mix of audit and design is very interesting: what is true and what is value?” as social designer Tabo Goudswaard puts it in his book ‘Maakkracht’ (the power of design). Design thinking adds a new perspective to the toolbox of auditors.

Bakker agrees. “Our audit results in thorough knowledge, and design thinking helps to find ways to connect that knowledge to the person who has to act upon it. The designer will look for meaning to let people get into action. You don’t have to change the knowledge, just the way you deliver it. It is not just the audit report, but many other products and activities can deliver that knowledge in a way people can act.

Auditors believe that when you write it down correctly, the message will come across, Meijer-Wassenaar explains. “That is a very cognitive approach to change management. When you begin thinking from the diversity of people, you will utilize that knowledge in more diverse ways. For us, this means we are searching for more ways to interact in order to understand what people need to use our audit knowledge to make improvements – that is how you design impact.

An example is a very technical report on multi-year forecasts. “In our audit, we concluded that Members of Parliament are not always asking the right questions,” Bakker says. “They could be more critical about the financial data. How can we enable them? We designed a tool called: First Aid for Forecasts. This is an interactive PDF that we offered to Parliament at the same time we published our annual planning letters. As an MP or supporting staff, the tool helps you create a customized list with questions for the minister. This increases their insight. This way, we increased the impact of our audit. Because in the end, better questions will lead to better forecasts.

The DAS is positioned among the auditors. That is important, Meijer-Wassenaar points out. “We challenge auditors to innovate their work, their thinking, and their influence – in collaboration. For auditors, this can be quite scary. That is why we innovate together. Otherwise, the status quo is the safest choice. Designers are more comfortable in ambiguity and will quickly think of opportunities, although they also don’t know what will work. A new method, a different story, or an exciting solution. Another benefit of our position among the auditors is that we are involved as early as possible because we know what is going on.

More openness

Four years later, the DAS can look back satisfied. “The NCA changed their way of working. More is possible, and we have more guts. Creativity and imagination are positive skills. Many auditors were already creative or visually-oriented; the DAS was just a booster. That change and openness in thinking is also a success of the DAS and the innovation program as a derivation of the DAS.

Bakker supports this noticed change. “What I observe a lot lately, is that space is created to have a dialogue with citizens and to connect with our stakeholders. That space is created by our leadership, because it fits our strategy. People are invited to interact. That creates even more opportunities to work with design methods.”

A pitfall that Meijer-Wassenaar mentions was the focus on visuals. “Auditors came to us to create pictures. But that is not our job. NCA’s Comms Team coordinates a pool of external graphic designers who create infographics. Visualizing for us is a method which we use during auditing, it is not a goal in itself. In the meantime auditors now find us for real design challenges. What we learned from that is that it takes time before people understand what it is that your bring – your innovation.”

Four tips to innovate

Meijer-Wassenaar and Bakker hope that in the near future design methods used by governments will be more obvious. They have four tips on how to do that:

  1. Find language; “That took a while for us.”, Meijer-Wassenaar explains. “The design world really uses a different language that the audit world. When you want to use the value of design, find a language that connects and that adds specific value for your organisation. It is not ‘one-size-fits-all’.”
  2. Support from the top; Find a sponsor at the top of the organisation. “It helps when you have someone with powers to decide at the top of the organisation that supports new ideas and experiments.”
  3. Start where there is energy. “Focus first on people that are open to another way of thinking and doing”, Bakker poses. “It is nice to start with these energized and open-minded people. You will learn a lot about how you can convince the rest of the people and it helps you to build a portfolio to showcase these new experiments.”
  4. Just do it ;). Bakker: “Just start, don’t get stuck in figuring out the ‘how’, find your collaborators and just start – learn and improve. Then you will experience what the value of design can do for your organisation.”