Making design work in the public sector

By Chris Vanstone

June 7, 2017

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.

The cost of changes over time.

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:

  1. How well is the project defined from the outset?
  2. To what degree are the capabilities and conditions for innovation in place?
  3. 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

  • Social outcomes and business outcomes are clearly defined.
  • Project ambition and scope is clear.
  • Is the ambition to optimise existing solutions, develop new solutions or create a radical transformation?
  • What is known, what is unknown and what needs to be found out is clear.
The project is poorly defined

  • Outcomes are poorly defined.
  • Ambition and scope are poorly defined.
  • What is known is uncertain or questions to be answered are uncertain.
The conditions and capabilities for innovation are in place (or built)

  • Effective authorising environment is in place.
  • Commitment to action by relevant stakeholders.
  • Capability to lead innovation.
  • Capability to deliver innovation.
The conditions and capabilities for innovation are not in place (or not built)

  • Absence of an authorising environment.
  • Weak commitment to action.
  • Limited capability to lead innovation.
  • Limited capability to deliver innovation.
The project methodology fits context

  • Resources (time, money, people) available match the complexity of the project.
  • Design approach chosen can be delivered with rigour within budget. Be that a workshop based approach, a user centred design approach or a participatory approach.
  • Project will build the capabilities and conditions required for innovation.
  • A design approach is supplemented with additional expertise that fits the public sector context. This is likely to include systems thinking, evaluative thinking, specialist expertise relevant to the challenge in hand, and business modelling.
The project methodology does not fit context

  • Resources are too low for the complexity of the project or the project is too complex for the resources available.
  • The chosen design approach is too expensive to deliver with rigour through all stages.
  • Capabilities and conditions are missing but not built through the project.
  • A ‘pure’ design-only approach is used.

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.

Chris Vanstone is the Chief Innovation Officer with The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. 
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5 years ago

I don’t disagree that this is not how things should be done ….. but until the Independent Republic of Narnia elects a government I don’t think it ever will be. That said, if you can point me in the direction of a program carried out as detailed I’d really like to read about it?

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