Experiences of DesignGov as a government start-up – collaboration across different mindsets

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

What does collaboration look like when it involves people from multiple government agencies on an issue with a lot of shared interest, but where there is no single ‘owner’?

That question might seem redundant – after all, if an initiative is truly collaborative then there will always be shared interest, and there shouldn’t be one single owner. However my experience with DesignGov has helped me realise, in a way that I hadn’t before, that in the Australian Public Service it is clear nearly all of the time who the owner is or where the decision making power lies.

The ‘who’ or the ‘where’ of that decision making power varies across different contexts, but it is usually (or soon becomes) quite clear.

The power might be with the most senior person and fit with lines of reporting and accountability, or it might be with the person who is recognised as the most expert, experienced or knowledgeable about the particular issue being discussed or dealt with. Or it might be with those who are best connected to, or who best understand, the relevant stakeholders.

It might be determined at an agency level, such as the representative(s) of the lead agency/agencies who are responsible, or who have jurisdiction, for an issue. Or it might be with those with the strongest or most relevant stake in the issue. Or it might be with those who can say yes or no (or who can influence those who can say yes or no).

None of this means that who has, or where the power is, is agreed of course – simply that for those of us in the public service there is an emphasis on being aware of different seniority levels, of certain types of experience, of connections, of politics (both with a capital ‘P’ and a little ‘p’) and of changes in where the power within the broader public sector lies.

This might all seem irrelevant or as being too much about the nuts and bolts of the APS (in which case you are unlikely to be interested in the other posts in this series about our experiences as a ‘start-up’ within government) or as being self-evident. But the really interesting aspect of this experience for me is about what it has revealed about the hegemony/predominance of different types of thinking styles within the public service.

Coming from a policy agency (and with a tertiary education background in public policy), in my experience certain styles of thinking have been prized over others – with the dominant discipline being economics. If there is a decision to be made, economics has generally been the primary discipline for the decision making process, with consideration of other disciplines as/if needed or the incorporation of their contributions under the broader economic umbrella.

There are also different types of information that are prized over others, though this varies more between individual decision-makers. But text and fact, on the whole, are usually king (as opposed to more visual styles of presenting information and more narrative based styles).

Yet in the collaborative venture of DesignGov we have a context where:

  • we are dealing with an issue where multiple government agencies have an interest (for instance we have had 12 investing agencies in the project looking at improving business and government interactions)
  • the problem is being jointly explored by people from different backgrounds and disciplines (we have a diverse team and with secondees from different agencies as well as working with diverse range of stakeholders)
  • there is diffuse power (e.g. there isn’t a lead agency model and success relies on the voluntary participation of each party)
  • different styles of thinking and different forms of information are needed in making the problem-solving process work.

This context has more starkly revealed for me the challenges of true inter-agency collaboration but also the value of design thinking as an enabler of collaboration. It makes me think of design thinking as an enabling language of, and a platform for, collaboration – not least because it has such a strong emphasis on empathy and understanding the ‘user’ and because it is very cross-disciplinary in its practice.

This issue is not the only challenge for collaboration, nor necessarily the most important one – but I do think it is one of the complexities. And design thinking is not the only answer either – but it is clear to me that for effective cross-discipline we need more and better ways of talking across experiences and across concepts that do not necessarily mean what we think they mean to people from different agencies and disciplines.