Co-design, collaboration, engagement: don’t just throw trendy words around


There’s a lot of hope that more collaborative ways of developing public policy can vastly improve outcomes but these approaches are nothing without ministerial support. Public trust also requires authenticity, so don’t say it’s co-design if it isn’t.

It was in the final minutes of this year’s IPAA national conference on “building public trust” that one of the many senior public servants attending made a semantic observation that had occurred to others earlier in the day.

“We don’t build trust; it is something that is given to us,” said New South Wales public service commissioner Graeme Head, who sat on a panel summing up the day’s discussions.

Head’s comment positions trust in government mainly as the result of good work, not as an explicit goal itself. It does not have to be built, because it is simply gained or lost as a consequence of individual actions and choices that have their own more specific and immediate goals. It’s not necessarily a drop-everything-and-focus-on-this scenario.

Mostly the discussions centred on ideas about better ways to develop and implement public policy in an increasingly complex world, such as co-design, which aims to give external experts and all kinds of community stakeholders a deeper and more genuine role. The hope is that better outcomes should follow, and greater public trust in turn.

“We talk a lot about co-design and engagement, but we’re not really clear about how we do it.”

Along with new ideas, there is also strong faith in the fundamentals of Westminster-style democracy. There remains hope that if politicians and public servants could better understand their own and each other’s roles, governments could do a better job of managing and meeting public expectations. The reality of our system is that the latest and greatest ideas in public administration will go nowhere without enthusiastic ministerial support.

Be authentic

Being true to one’s words is a key part of being trusted but it’s not just politicians who have an authenticity problem. Public service leaders quickly pick up on the latest terms that describe better ways of working. This is fine if the words are just tools to enable discussion, but the temptation to use these new labels to dress up fairly standard processes must be resisted, advises Victorian Department of Education and Training secretary Gill Callister.

Suddenly, everyone is not just talking about co-designing public policy, they claim to be doing it. But are they? Or are they just offering basic opportunities for stakeholder consultation and public participation?

Callister thinks it is always important to consider whether there is a gap between what a policy promises, and what is being delivered. The same goes for the public administration buzzwords. Her advice: don’t say it if you don’t mean it.

“We talk a lot about co-design and engagement, but we’re not really clear about how we do it,” she said.

“And we throw around [these terms], particularly in social services where I’ve spent an awful lot of my career, talking about how we’re going to design wrap-around services that are integrated, they’re co-designed, they’re seamless, they’re one-stop shops and no-one’s going to fall through the cracks.

“And I have no idea what that actually means. It is just a whole lot of words and I really advocate, I suggest to you, don’t use them unless you are really able to explain to someone what that actually means.”

The audience applauded. It is time to “get a little bit more clinical and scientific” about what all these words really mean and how they actually create better outcomes, she argued.

Callister said public sector leaders should think carefully about whether there is a “credibility gap” between the values and ideas they espouse and the reality of their service delivery.

She has faced a steeper task in this regard than most secretaries, having taken on her job with the Victorian Education Department under a “cloud of mistrust” following the exposure of serious corruption and criminality in a public corruption inquiry (covered in a series of articles by David Donaldson).

On the plus side, she said the scandal became an excellent opportunity “to grapple with what does it mean to have really good integrity as an organisation” in terms of culture, processes and accountability, and this led to a package of reforms and promises that the whole Victorian public service would learn the same lessons.

“And my advice to you is don’t wait for an anti-corruption commission [or] the auditor-general to tell you you’ve got a problem,” said Callister. “Take the opportunity to [proactively] think about the culture and practices in your own organisation, and whether you have trust.”

Losing touch with the coal-face

It’s not just in the public sector that people think the senior leaders are full of empty words. Callister obviously thinks there is substance behind this common impression of the higher-ups, and links it to the extremely common view that perspectives from the coal-face are too often marginalised.

“One of my reflections is that the public service is losing touch with the notion of delivery,” she said. “It is losing touch with an understanding of the day-to-day experience of the frontline worker and the day-to-day experience of the people receiving those services.

“Increasingly, as the public service has delivered less and less itself, it has come to value the opinion and the input of the people who deliver less and less.”

Callister says most policy needs to be “adaptive” because implementation typically involves persuading someone – be they frontline public servants, citizens, companies or contracted service providers – to change what they are doing. This works better if their feedback is valued.

“That takes us inevitably into understanding the differences between communities and the differences between places, and we talk a lot about this notion of place-based delivery,” she said. “And the reality is that we are not terribly good at it.”

“Increasingly, as the public service has delivered less and less itself, it has come to value the opinion and the input of the people who deliver less and less.”

A lot of speakers at the conference were excited about place-based public services but Callister could think of few successful examples. She later pointed out it’s not just public servants throwing these buzzwords around, they also get picked up by groups from “the stakeholder side” when they too are just doing what they’ve always done: making demands on the public purse, for example.

Co-design, the Victorian secretary ventured, should mean trying to reach agreement on the nature of a problem to be solved, and opening up to a broader range of ideas and possible solutions. She said the aim of collaboration — as opposed to standard consultation — should always be better outcomes, not just giving every stakeholder group a chance to stake a claim. In usage, she suggested, the real meaning of the term is inconsistent and slightly elusive.

Federal Department of Education and Training secretary Michelle Bruniges took the tricky question from host Virginia Haussegger: “Is the APS really willing to engage in co-design, and what on earth does that really mean in practical terms?”

To Bruniges, co-design means “knowing, at the heart, … the issues of communities” and the conference heard she often asks her staff when they last visited a school, childcare centre or university.

She added that “stretching out and reaching and knowing and understanding some of those things, helps us come forward with better policy advice in a collaborative and co-design method, where both parties can come to agreement and you get on and you do it” before offering a practical example.

Bruniges was head of the NSW department when education funding was spent on fixing a road in the remote town of Walgett, she explained, because that’s what residents asked for. In 2015, then NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli told the ABC that being guided by what remote Indigenous communities asked for was a “radical departure” from previous policy, and although Walgett was still struggling, schools in other communities like Wilcannia had seen bigger improvements.

Piccoli didn’t exactly call it co-design but if it can produce a good outcome, does it matter what you call the process?

Then the conversation moved on, Haussegger asking Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development secretary Steven Kennedy about his thoughts on how senior public servants could be more influential. Does he think they should “try and dress up expertise in some other way to try and make it more palatable?” — he does not.

Kennedy said the co-design example illustrated the kind of expertise ministers expect. Theoretical knowledge isn’t enough, public servants need to apprehend the nature of specific real-world situations or problems in communities.

There’s no point in pretending

One audience member said that too often, he had seen public servants open up consultation “and then suddenly shut it down as soon as they felt vulnerable or they thought that the government or the minister’s position might be vulnerable”.

Callister warns “there’s no point pretending” the government is running a consultation, or a genuine co-design process for that matter, when the decision has already been made; better to just get on with implementing it. On the other hand, if the aim really is a full co-design process, then commit. Make that clear from the start, and don’t cut corners.

“That’s really my point about understanding what you’re doing, not just using a term because it’s new and exciting and applying it to everything,” she said.

This also implies that if the minister sees value in going through the motions and faking a consultation or co-design process, the department should push back with robust advice to the contrary.

Governments need to decide if they’re going to be consultative or decisive about a particular matter. The man who asked the question mentioned risk aversion as one apparent cause of disappointing consultations that seem to have no real purpose, but it’s not public servants who set the government’s risk appetite.

Steven Kennedy pointed out that trust is a two-way street, giving more insight into where this risk aversion comes from.

“I’ve certainly been, when I’ve dealt with lobby groups in the past … disappointed to hear my remarks reported to all and sundry after the meeting,” said Kennedy.

“So that’s a very difficult place for me to talk about where I think the boundaries of the policy are, when I can’t have that solution-based conversation or even explore the boundaries of that policy.

“You’re prepared to take more risks as you get more senior, and it’s important that you do, even when you’re let down, but we are all looking to make that judgement about who our counter-parties are in that conversation, to see if we can have a trusted conversation that is solution based.”

He apparently had a good experience working with “civil society” representatives in the group that came up with Australia’s Open Government National Action Plan, because they managed to agree on watered-down proposals the government would accept without handing intimate details of their meetings to the media.

Public servants are always limited as to what they can say in such situations. Nobody wants them assuming the elected government’s authority, and this is why open public consultations are mainly a one-way affair, an opportunity to receive information from a diverse range of perspectives.

Bureaucrats can get down to brass tacks a little more if the process is private, but Kennedy’s comments were also a reminder that their main role here is to facilitate, and relay information back and forth, sometimes discreetly.It is ministers who must make the decision to genuinely participate.

Co-design, like any consultation, is only appropriate when the government really wants to listen. If it is determined to rely on its electoral mandate, follow its ideological convictions and prosecute a specific agenda, as it has every right to do, there’s no point in faking it.

Full videos, images and highlights packages from the 2017 IPAA national conference are available online. Top image: Department of Education secretary Michelle Bruniges, ANZSOG dean Ken Smith, Victorian Department of Education secretary Gill Callister and Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development secretary Steven Kennedy.

  • Charles Lines

    ‘Co-design, the Victorian secretary ventured, should mean trying to reach agreement on the nature of a problem to be solved, and opening up to a broader range of ideas and possible solutions.’
    Yes, engagement that is about collaboration to co-design must focus on the nature of the problem! However, traditional thinking about engagement and collaboration has often blinkered perceptions. Arguably, it has encouraged us to focus upon ‘the best way to engage with stakeholders’ rather than ‘the best way to engage with stakeholders to solve the problem’. http://cuttingedgepartnerships.blogspot.co.uk/2017/12/do-not-merely-engage-with-stakeholders.html I am glad to see such a simple but frequently overlooked point being emphasised by someone to whom people might listen. This is, it has to be said, all too rare.