Eight simple* rules for making stuff with government


Hint: it’s not so simple. This is a list of hard things.

Earlier this year, Code for Australia wrapped up our Code for Victoria II — Women in Tech program — an initiative supported by the Public Sector Innovation Fund and Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet that saw nine talented designers and developers embedded in three government agencies over six months.

That’s a lot to take in. If you need more context — here’s something we wrote when we first kicked off.

Over the six months, our three teams of three worked tirelessly alongside their government hosts. Using design thinking and agile development practices, they broke down silos, and engaged staff and the general public in the process of creating new solutions to old problems.

Tough, complex problems such as:

  • Working with Corrections Victoria to help offenders complete their community corrections orders;
  • Working with the Dispute Settlement Centre of Victoria to help people understand their rights and self-resolve their civil issues;
  • And working with the Department of Health and Human Services to help improve communications with clients needing housing assistance.

For Code for Australia it was the second time we ran the Code for Victoria initiative and the 13th time running the Fellowship model in Australia. Each time, we’ve iterated on the previous version using feedback from the Government Hosts and Fellows that have joined us —  adding and scrapping experiments to the mix as we go.

Over the past two years — by testing our ideas, checking our assumptions and asking for feedback from people involved with Code for Victoria — we’ve slowly been piecing together the puzzle of ‘how to innovate with government’.

Like all great things, it hasn’t been an easy or straightforward process. As Lina Patel said, we’ve run up against many invisible walls only to dust ourselves off and keep on running straight into another one.

When the program came to an end, we wanted to get an outside perspective on it —  to see the impact we’d had and the lessons that could be gleaned —  and so we teamed up with the good people at Storyscape to help us.

The Storyscape team spoke to 19 individuals, including Government Hosts, Fellows and program staff from Code for Australia and DPC’s Public Sector Innovation team.

Using the Most Significant Change Technique, we (Storyscape, Code for Australia and the Public Sector Innovation team) distilled the findings and identified eight success factors for supporting innovation in government.

Here’s what we found.

Success Factor #1: Leaders who value, enable and reward employees who deliver innovation

When you’re trying something new and risky, within the confines of a risk-averse system, it can be slow going. Like, really slow. Leaders have the power to create a safe environment for experimentation, for setting the standard in open communication and for opening minds and doors to trying something new.

Success Factor #2: Teams focused on the problem to solve, rather than specific deliverables

Human-centred design is a way of making things that places the end users (or humans) of whatever you’re making, at the centre of the design process. Makes sense right? But, because you’re constantly checking in with your users, pivoting to meet their needs and leading by their direction, it can be hard to see very far down the development path. You might have a broad idea of what a solution might look like, but you also have to be okay with getting something that looks completely different. This butts heads constantly with the planned development process that is typical inside governments.

We’ve found that teams that have a narrow view of a product or solution they want to end up with are less inclined to take on user feedback or change their original vision, making human-centred design a difficult methodology to follow. Instead, when teams see the learnings gathered as valuable outcomes, there is generally more fluidity and room for movement in the design process.

Success Factor #3: Mindsets matter — be action oriented, curious, courageous, outcomes focused, imaginative, resilient and agile

It’s uncomfortable being uncomfortable — few people enjoy it. Yet, we’ve found that there are certain lenses you can apply to change the flavour of discomfort to something more palatable.

When you feel uncertain, can you instead look at things with a sense of curiosity? When you feel out of control, can you focus on the outcomes you began with and look for tiny actions you can take towards them? When you want to bang your head on a wall, can you dig deep to find reserves of resilience and courage?

When finding the right team to work on innovation projects, the evaluation found the following mindsets important to have:

Action Oriented: bias towards action and learning by doing
Curious: the desire to explore multiple possibilities
Courageous: willing to take risks
Outcomes Focussed: strong commitment to real world effects
Imaginative: an openness to exploring and envisioning new possible futures
Resilient: the perseverance to deal with resistance
Agile: able to respond to changing environments with flexibility

Inspired by NESTA’s Competency Framework

Success Factor #4: Employees who are empowered to share how they are approaching their problem and what they are learning

Usually we don’t hear about a new initiative from government until it’s live and has a press release or a comms team behind it. Like having your journal read aloud or a personal exchange being broadcast, it can be uncomfortable putting un-finessed work into the world.

Back in school, I remembered when teachers switched from giving points just for having the correct answer, to awarding points on showing the work behind your answer — even if it ended up being the wrong answer. There’s value in seeing thought patterns and experiments, in seeing reasoning and what might go wrong.

In all our Fellowships, we encourage working in the open through showcases/product demos, blogging and having physical spaces within the department where work is visible. Transparency makes it easy for others to understand and learn from your decision-making, while even more crucially, creates opportunities for others to participate and contribute to your work.

Success Factor #5: Engaging early with diverse suppliers to enrich understanding of the problem, enables a more agile, open way of partnering

The beauty of innovation is that there is no one way of doing things, and no one organisation that does it. Instead it’s an ecosystem of ideas, research, learning and practitioners. For every problem space we enter, from justice to the environment, there are a dozens of businesses, agencies, non-profits and individuals working in that field.

When government opens its doors to new and diverse suppliers, it brings in new experience, networks and knowledge. And equally, when government open its doors to other departments and agencies, it reveals shared frustrations and learnings. By establishing a wide range of partnerships early in projects, innovators avoid reinventing the wheel and running into hurdles that are well known in other circles.

Success Factor #6: Taking sufficient time to research and understand both the problem and end users, leads to more appropriate and effective solutions

In every project…

“You’ll miss the best things if you keep your eyes shut.”

(You can thank Dr. Seuss for those words of wisdom…)

When making things for a wide range of people, most of who probably have different lived experiences to your own, there’s going to be a lot of unknowns. There’s also going to be a lot of things you think you know, but don’t really know. Research —  LOTS of research — is the answer.

Inspired by a theory of collaboration created by Dr. Mark Elliot from Collabforge

Success Factor #7: Partnerships are longer lasting when private sector organisations maintain focus on the public benefit of the work being done, throughout the course of the engagement

When we start each Fellowship, the amazing Lina Patel runs a signature kick off workshop with the government Hosts and Fellows from each team. As well as being a rapid introduction to ‘doing things differently’, the workshop helps Code for Australia (the organisation), the department (as an organisation) and the individuals in the room find a shared understanding of what it is we’re all trying to achieve.

Usually this is making people’s lives easier, in whatever way, shape or form that might take → see examples here for what I mean.

Keeping this shared mission and understanding front of mind, helps the decision making process and prioritisation easier in the long run, for everyone.

Success Factor #8: Being a change-maker from the outside requires patience and resourcefulness

Working alongside government as partners, and outsiders, is tough work. Sometimes we face animosity, sometimes we face silence — for the most part, it’s usually fear that underpins it all.

As an organisation trying to improve civil society, the issue of trust between people and their governments is one that is going to take more than just us, and more than a lifetime of effort. For us at Code for Australia, it’s the reason we get out of bed everyday. We believe that enabling people to actively participate in improving bureaucracy and service delivery, is the most productive way to build sustainable change in the public sector.

And so, we’re relentless. Miraculously the people that join us on this mission are too. For their advice on how to get through the hairy moments, check out the pieces below.

To all our friends working to make government better, from the inside and out, hang in there and here’s to many more adventures and achievements to come.

* We’re currently working on more in-depth case studies for each of the latest projects to accompany these ones.

If you’re looking to work some of these into your project or organisation — we’d love to hear from you and are always up for sharing our experiences. The best way to do so would be to jump on our Slack channel where you can find most of our partners and team.

A huge thank you to Storyscape and the Public Sector Innovation fund for helping us uncover and refine these learnings; to the government departments and the amazing public servants we’ve worked with through Code for Victoria; and of course, to the extraordinary Fellows who signed up for the impossible and made this all, against all odds, possible.

Grace O’Hara, Head of Marketing, Code for Australia

Thanks to Rikke Winther-Sørensen, Becca Blazak, Christian Arevalo, Michael Calle, johan codinha, Veronica Farias, Fred Michna, Ben M, Ken Mok, ELMER IBAYAN, Georgia Hansford, kristen hardy, Samara Dionne, Sam Wijesinha, Louise Krstic, Kerrie Batrouney, Teresa Villanueva, Tatiana Lenz and Rachelle Salvadora.

This article was first published on Medium. Republished with author’s permission.

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