Co-designing with public servants at the centre: an oxymoron?

By Maria Katsonis

Wednesday November 2, 2016

For those familiar with the concept of co-designing public services, the title of this article might seem like an oxymoron. Co-designing involves collaborating with users of services to design policies, programs and services that work for them. A guiding tenet of co-design is that users are central to the process as ‘experts’ of their own experience.

So why then would you co-design services with public servants at the centre? Unless of course public servants are users of the services themselves.

Last week, The Mandarin reported that the Victorian Government has launched a new Mental Health and Wellbeing Charter that commits every government department to creating a mentally sound and safe workplace. The Charter is based on the Canadian national standard for psychological health and safety in the workplace. This provides guidelines to employers so they can develop and maintain psychologically healthy work environments. Immediate priorities under the Victorian Charter include education and training for all staff to identify risks to mental health and to promote mental wellbeing.

On the one hand, the new Victorian Charter is a major advance for the public service which to date has not had an overarching approach to mental health in the workplace. I say this as a public servant who lives with a chronic mental illness and who has had mixed experience with managing my illness at work. More often than not, this has been due to luck of the draw such as having a supportive manager rather than being able to rely on an organisation wide approach to mental health with appropriate policies, tools, resources and training. This is a refrain I have often heard from colleagues whether they are experiencing mental illness, are caring for someone with an illness or are managing others with mental health issues.

“An organisational culture that takes a systemic approach to mental health … creates an environment of trust and respect between managers, employees and colleagues.”

The Mandarin reports that the Charter was developed by a leadership group made up of departmental secretaries, representatives from Victoria Police, Trades Hall, unions and WorkSafe. At this stage, implementation details are sketchy including how the new initiatives will be rolled out and who will have central coordinating responsibility.

In taking the Charter forward, I would hope the design of programs will include their users — public servants themselves. The value of consumer and carer participation in decision making has long been recognised in the mental health sector. It is seen as fundamental to the development and implementation of mental health services and central to improving the lives of people with a mental illness. The government’s 10-year mental health plan itself acknowledges that involving people with mental illness and their carers in the design and delivery of services can lead to better services and outcomes.

Outside of work, I am a member of the National Register of Mental Health Consumer and Carer Representatives and also blueVoices, the consumer and carer reference group for beyondblue. Over the years, I have been involved in numerous projects including Heads Up, the national online resource developed by the Mentally Healthy Workplace Alliance and beyondblue. Through these projects, I have seen firsthand the value that lived experience brings to program and policy development, both formally and informally.

The workplace plays a crucial role in promoting positive mental health outcomes and maintaining mental well-being. A supportive and inclusive workplace values people with mental illness and treats them equitably without fear of discrimination and stigma. This requires an organisational culture that takes a systemic approach to mental health in the workplace and creates an environment of trust and respect between managers, employees and colleagues.

The commitment to the Mental Health and Wellbeing Charter is a significant step forward for the public service. The devil will be in the detail of its implementation and how its roll out engages with public servants themselves. I’ll be watching next steps with keen interest.

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