Co-designing BabelGov – a prototype for getting meaningful answers from government

[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

Navigating government is hard!

We know this, not least because it is an issue that has arisen in our research and interviews with businesses, intermediaries and public servants as part of our project on dramatically improving business government interactions. Finding accurate, relevant, understandable and meaningful answers out of the information that government provides can be difficult and frustrating.

A number of things have already been done or introduced to help overcome any difficulty that business people might have in navigating government and government processes and information. For instance, a major initiative was the establishment of which provides a wealth of information about establishing and running a business.

But it would seem there is still room to improve, whether it is in the language used on government sites, the ease of finding relevant answers, or being able to seek clarification of the answers you do find.

So what might be done? And what might be done at a cross-APS (or even cross-jurisdiction) level?

One idea that we have been examining is a concept with the working name of ‘BabelGov’1 – a platform by which users could get answers that are relevant and meaningful to them, as opposed to being in the language or framing of government.

The idea is that BabelGov would be a peer-to-peer crowd-support platform, where users could seek help from other users find the information and answers (interpreted information) that was relevant to them, and in turn share their knowledge for other users. A couple of existing examples that give a sense of the basics of what it might look like are the Australian Whirlpool Forums or the commercial application of Telstra’s Crowdsupport platform.

With some initial support and interest from stakeholders, DesignGov has commenced early prototyping of this idea to test it, to explore it, and to help understand the problem of navigating government more fully.

We are under no illusion that such a platform can be simply introduced and magically start working. The aim of the prototyping process is to uncover what might be needed to make it work if it was to be introduced as a formal idea, and to use the prototyping as a vehicle for gaining further insight into the needs of stakeholders and the possible options for meeting those needs. BabelGov might not be theanswer, but we hope to use the process of prototyping to find out what the many answers could be.

The initial testing of the idea has been with key stakeholders, with some of the business people interviewed as part of the business/government interactions project, with some of the key agencies, and then as part of the workshop we ran in conjunction with the Australian Taxation Office with experienced designers from across the APS.

We also undertook an exploratory workshop on 27 June with a mix of public servants from across relevant Australian Government agencies, from the ACT Government and  the NSW Government, and with people from business intermediaries (professional associations and industry associations) and local businesses.

In the three hour workshop, kindly hosted for us by the Canberra office of EY, we had three groups work through the issues of how BabelGov might function, who would participate and why, and what the issues might be.

With a big idea like this, there is a lot to consider and naturally the discussions covered a lot of ground, but some of the key issues raised included:

  • How would it be governed?
  • How would it fit with what exists now and what people use now?
  • Who would participate and why?

It was an invaluable workshop for us and we are very thankful to the business people, intermediaries and public servants who gave their time to make it such a useful discussion.

We have prepared a draft write-up [PDF 218KBWord 372KB] of the event which, along with some other research we have commissioned and undertaken, will help inform the initial prototyping and next steps for BabelGov.

The prototyping process will be an exploratory one – it is after all trying to explore something that cuts across agencies and stakeholder groups. We don’t know that this is ‘the’ solution. We do know that there is a problem (or many inter-related ones) and that through exploration of specific ideas and tangible artefacts (rather than general concepts) we will get closer to ‘something’ that is better.

BabelGov is one of a number of ideas that we are looking to take forward as part of our project report for consideration by the Secretaries Board. Being an innovative (and experimental) process, there are no guarantees, but we think this is an idea that can shed new light on how to help businesses find out what they need.

What will happen next?

We will be refining the idea with the intelligence from the workshop and further discussions and combining with some research we have commissioned, and then get the prototyping well underway. If you have any thoughts about the concept, the prototyping or would like to be involved/included in future workshops on the idea, then please let us know by email or in the comments below.

  1. The name BabelGov is inspired by Douglas Adams’ ‘BabelFish’ from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – an alien device that would allow the user to understand alien languages.