Interaction between business and government – where might design help dramatically improve things?

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

As my colleague Alex Marsden recently outlined, the first project for the Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design is looking at the interaction between business and government – how might we dramatically improvement business and government[1. While the term government is used here, it is being used to refer to the whole machinery of government, including the public sector] interaction?

With a big topic area like this, where do you start?

We at the Centre began by considering some of the different perspectives and lenses that could be used to assess the interaction between business and government. Drawing from the design practice of other agencies, one perspective was to think about how government and business intersect on a ‘life-event’ or life-cycle basis. This is where you consider the major ‘touch points’ or times when a business owner might come into contact with the government – such as during the establishment, running (and possibly closing) of a business. There’s quite a lot of information about these touch points on – for instance points to consider and processes to follow when someone is thinking of starting a business.

Another way to think about interaction between business and government is to think about the different types of relationship roles that business and government can have between each other. For instance there is government as regulator, as policy-maker, as granter, as purchaser or as adviser. Government can also be a supplier – but so can business (of information, of intelligence, of effort or other things). They can be partners on some things (projects) and have different relationships on other matters at the same time (regulator & developer).

Or we could think about the interactions as a mix between these two perspectives and look at the specific activities that businesses undertake and where government fits – e.g. in terms of employment, production and provision of services.

Alternatively we considered the interaction with a ‘customer service’ lens – e.g. through web sites/portals, forms, processes, call centres, and so on. An example of some of the major website interfaces are:

But these perspectives can neglect to consider the more ‘extreme’ interactions – where the interaction does not neatly fit into existing processes and procedures. From a design perspective this is often where a lot of frustration can exist. This sort of viewpoint has been previously raised, for instance in Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service and the idea of mechanisms of challenge.

And of course there’s the valuable work that has, and continues to be, done by numerous government agencies, from the Departments of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education and Treasury, to the Productivity Commission, to COAG, to industry groups and associations. Many of these speak of the red tape burden, point to a perceived lack of understanding of business by government, or of confusion for those navigating government systems.

But as we read and deliberated and exchanged ideas, we thought the most valuable focus area would be to concentrate on the pain points faced by both businesses and by the public sector.

In line with our (evolving) approach to the design process, the first phase then was one of seeking to understand the problem and build shared intent.

This involved interviewing a number of stakeholders (from government, from business, from academic bodies and from intermediary groups). For these interviews we aimed to talk to people with diverse perspectives – to try and capture the full spectrum of activities and types of interactions, across a wide range of experiences.

We held a design-led workshop (facilitated by ThinkPlace on a commercial arrangement) with representatives from 26 agencies. This workshop helped tease out issues and give us a richer understanding of how parts of government understand their impact on business and what they think business thinks about them and their processes. It gave us a number of problem areas and also some possible directions and ideas about how those problem areas might be addressed.

Through the analysis phase of the process, we drew on the insights from research, interviews and the workshop and identified a number of tensions or competing priorities that agencies face in their interaction with business, tensions where one facet cannot usually be met to the extent desired without compromising on another. A common example of such a tension is the pressure for agencies to reduce costs which is usually felt to be at odds with the pressure for agencies to deliver better services.

Some of the other tensions we identified included:

    • Consultation or collaboration – agencies are expected to consult but also at times to collaborate (e.g. to co-create, co-design or co-produce). This can be an uncomfortable mix, particularly where agencies are unsure of all of the relevant players and need to be seen as impartial. How might agencies ensure adequate consultation and balance it with generally more limited opportunities for collaboration?
    • Communication or understanding – agencies are expected to communicate what they are doing and why, but this can easily default into a process of telling. Ensuring that what you are communicating is also being understood can be more resource intensive and difficult – and also potentially confronting as it can expose different ways of thinking and communicating. This tension applies from the private sector perspective as well – both sides may think they are speaking the same language, but it can actually have very different meanings. How might agencies both communicate and ensure understanding?
    • Bureaucracy or openness – layers of decision making and intricate government processes exist for a reason (though whether for a good reason is less certain). Yet there are also pressures for openness and transparency. These two factors can at times seem incompatible. How might agencies be open about what they are doing and why without needing everyone else to be immersed and fluent in the intricacies of government processes?
    • Certainty or flexibility – a common refrain from business is the need for certainty. Yet if regulations and policies are too certain there can be concerns about a lack of flexibility and stopping legitimate business changes. How might agencies adequately balance the need for certainty with the ability to provide flexibility and a focus on outcomes and allow for revision as evidence and expectations change?
    • Compliance or trust – many agencies have an explicit role in ensuring that the law or a policy direction is being followed (sometimes to the letter of the law). This can result in seemingly onerous processes. Yet if an agency uses its discretion to ‘trust’ firms, or certain categories, and then something goes wrong, the agency may be held responsible. How might agencies best balance the need to ensure that firms comply and being able to use trust and judgement?
    • Regulator or partner – regulators often need to consider the potential ‘worst case’ or ‘just in case’ scenario. If something goes wrong it can be damaging for an entire industry. Yet there is also an expectation that they or the respective policy area can work with industry to develop the most appropriate framework. How might agencies best work with industry, yet ensure that the outcomes (and risk mitigation strategies) are for everyone?
    • Responsiveness or resolution – a common pressure is for officers to provide a response to enquiries in short order. Yet providing a resolution to the question (even if that resolution is a definite ‘no’) can be much more difficult. How might agencies and frontline officers ensure that businesses are responded to in expected timeframes without underestimating the complexity that might lie behind the enquiry?
    • Efficiency or innovation – standardisation and routine are important in ensuring practices are efficient. Yet agencies (and businesses) need the freedom to innovate to provide new and better ways of doing things. How might agencies best balance the need for standardisation of what they do (efficiency) against the need for change and evolution of processes in response to changing times (innovation)?
    • Stability or transition – government processes (and those of business) evolve over time to reflect the current state of affairs. Yet governments (and existing industries) can play a significant role (either negative or positive) in how disruptive technologies and new industries will integrate (or not) with the broader economy. How might agencies best ensure that regulation and policy will achieve the best outcomes and work not only for current industries but for future industries (and allow government to stay in touch with emerging trends and technologies)?

We hope that design and innovation will help explore how the public sector may be able to overcome the ‘or’ and having to choose one option at the cost of another – to turn the choice ‘between’ into a pathway for having both.

Drawing from these and other matters that arose in the workshop, interviews and research, we identified four challenge areas or themes that we thought might be worthy of exploration using a design process. These areas were:

    • “Buried in bureaucracy – ease my burden” – how might we better ensure well designed regulation and processes that achieve public good without overly restricting businesses?
    • “I don’t know – how do I find out?” – how might we better aid the flow of information and knowledge and help businesses (and public servants)?
    • “Tell me, hear me, let me have a say” – how might we better ensure better engagement practices and understanding of and by each side of the interaction?
    • “Your role, my role, whose role?” – changing expectations, technologies and practices can lead to uncertainty over who is responsible for what, whether it be within or between governments, or between industry and government, or between (or within) industries. How might we best allow for change without leaving too much uncertainty?

At this stage, and in response to feedback, we have made a decision to focus on ‘buried in bureaucracy’ as the primary lens of investigation with a sub-focus on the two pain point areas of ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Tell me, hear me, let me have a say’ (which we have made a judgement about as being subordinate to ‘buried in bureaucracy’).

While the area of ‘Your role, my role, whose role?’ is an interesting one, we have decided that it is somewhat tangential to the problem statement that we are exploring. (Though, of course, we may uncover insights about this area through our investigations, and the problem statement may evolve over time to cover aspects of this or other new challenge areas that we subsequently identify.)

What happens next? We, with the help of many others, have put together a prospectus for consideration by agencies and the CEO is in discussions with agency heads and other APS leaders about the project. We will aim to provide an update on the project discussions and deliberations after our next Board meeting in mid-December. (And, as you might expect with a new process for a new activity, please allow for a little uncertainty and variation in the process – design and innovation after all are about iteration and the unexpected!)

We will also looking to work with private sector groups and firms (and academics and even not-for-profits) with an interest in this area, so if you are interested to know more, alex.roberts [at]”>please contact us.