Designers can have 10 great ideas before breakfast, but if they can’t find ways of making the bureaucracies that run our world understand them, they’re doomed

Can design and politics be cultural bedfellows? This morning we had a Design Council meeting at 10 Downing Street. The theme was the vital role of “design” in tackling the recession. More specifically, how could the design community help a cash-strapped government to spend every penny of our tax money more wisely. A massive subject, but to make it easier we were gently taken through examples of how good design in the private sector helps such things as global competitiveness, sales, and profitability. Translation: more corporation tax, more income tax, shorter dole queues.

Then there was a conversation about how to design for the public sector, where the government spends well over £100bn a year. Among the design trailblazers shown was a hospital bedside cabinet from the Design Out Bugs prototype programme. It is a single moulding that is wipe-clean and gives nowhere for superbugs to hide. Translation: simple, clean, efficient, intelligent.

Afterwards I had a conversation with a director from a strategic health authority who said that, under NHS rules, she could not actually buy such a cabinet for her hospitals, because it was more expensive than flat-pack formica. Strict procurement rules for the thousands of NHS items means she cannot offset say, the savings in treatment costs from improved infection control against a more expensive product. Translation: take the broad view and the total sum to the NHS (and hence to the taxpayer) is less.

Our lives as designers are governed by these inconsistencies. The problem begins with the uncontrollable compulsion to compartmentalise everything. Multiple professional institutions plough their own furrow. Multiple government departments have ringfenced budgets. Multiple university research teams have a single speciality.

There is simply no government mechanism for prioritising people over spineless, pudgy worms

I was beginning to feel a bit rotten about this when up popped designer after designer who showed the ministers knock-out designs that transcended any sort of Mother’s Pride slicing. They spanned health, transport, education … Out of this emerged “A Good Idea”: why should design not take its place as a core skill alongside science, technology, engineering and maths. We will see.

Well meaning governance is bad value. I remember the Environment Agency (EA) insisting we put thousands of pounds of Kentish ragstone onto the riverbed around the Millennium Bridge to protect the common lugworm. My brother, an accident and emergency consultant, said that he could run 12 intensive care beds in London for a year for the same money. Yet we could not suggest, even hypothetically, to the EA that it leave the lugworms to their fate and let us give the money to the health service instead … there was simply no government mechanism for prioritising people over spineless, pudgy worms. Likewise, the one-piece bedside cupboards may be a great idea doomed never to see a patient because of the NHS procurement rules, but I really hope not. We simply must be able to design a system to provide safer equipment for sick patients, otherwise what hope for unfettered creativity on low-carbon homes, renewable energy, sustainable transport, rising sea levels, global water shortage and all of that scary stuff?

Even when two cultures try to share a common language, the heffalump-pit awaits the unwary: a Fosters director tells about working on the design of Century Tower in Tokyo. Every morning he would greet his Japanese collaborators with a cheery ”Good morning, chaps” – only to be met with frowns. Next time, he tried with a bigger smile and an even heartier “Good morning, chaps”, but even bigger frowns. After a few months he asked if there was, heaven forbid, a problem. “Only one thing, director-san. Please stop calling us ‘Japs’.”

When the footballer Ian Rush said “Moving from Wales to Italy is like moving to a different country” he got it in one. Perhaps a Cabinet post beckons …