Public sector professionals delivering reform confront a challenging dynamic of limited resources, short timeframes, stakeholders with conflicting views, political commitments to honour and public scrutiny. In the midst of this they also face the challenge of making progress on intractable problems where existing responses have reached their limits.
It can then be a lot to introduce another factor into the equation – design. Yet that’s exactly what increasing numbers of public servants are doing. This week 200 public servants will join the Explore Design 2017 conference in Canberra to look at how design thinking, policy design and service design can be put to use in the public sector – an event hosted by the Department of Employment and their user centred design team.
At The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) we’ve found the promise of reduced risk and an increased chance of success often sees more people turn to design approaches. By understanding problems from the perspectives of citizens and running prototypes that inexpensively test solutions at a small scale, it is cheaper and less embarrassing to make changes to policy or services before they are rolled out.
It seems like common sense. However, design-based approaches are in their infancy in the public sector. For public servants responsible for making change, it’s not always easy to see how the usual rules and norms that govern public sector practice can support approaches that are less linear.
Design often involves looping back to better understand why solutions aren’t working and a constant and rapid process of iteration. In a public sector where tolerance of ‘failure’ can be low and not considered as an opportunity to learn, implementing a design approach is easier said than done.
To help people in this position, The Australian Centre for Social innovation has reflected on its work with governments across the country to identify 3 questions to think about when applying design approaches in the public sector context:
- How well is the project defined from the outset?
- To what degree are the capabilities and conditions for innovation in place?
- How suitable is the design approach for the challenge at hand?
What we’re learning about making design work in the public sector
The table below sets out the features our work suggests are present when thing are more likely to go well and when they are more likely to go wrong.
|More likely to go well if…||More likely to go wrong if…|
|The project is well defined
||The project is poorly defined
|The conditions and capabilities for innovation are in place (or built)
||The conditions and capabilities for innovation are not in place (or not built)
|The project methodology fits context
||The project methodology does not fit context
For public sector professionals responsible for making change the work can be exhilarating and inspiring but also difficult and at times a risk to their reputations and careers. Design approaches that take into account the environment in which they are being deployed offer a way to manage these risks and deliver better outcomes for citizens.