So you’re thinking of setting up a cross-agency design-led innovation capability…

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

“If you were giving advice about setting up a group like DesignGov, what would you recommend?”

In our time at DesignGov we have had the opportunity to speak with a number of groups around the world (and in Australia) about what’s involved in setting up a cross-agency/cross-problem area innovation capability. We have been recipients of advice (such as taking advantage of the experience of Christian Bason of MindLab and Dan Hill with his experience with the Helsinki Design Lab), sometimes providers of advice, and continually sharing experiences with others.

What have we learnt from these conversations and from our own experiences in the operation of DesignGov? We have tried to capture some of the lessons but as we start to approach the end of our pilot period, it provides a good opportunity to reflect and to attempt to codify some of the key points.

As with the material in many of the other posts, none of this is likely to be very surprising, but in keeping with our aim of sharing our experience and lessons widely, we hope it may be of value to others. We should also remember that some of these musings may of course be specific to DesignGov’s context and history rather than being truly representative – but the only way we’ll be certain of that is if we share our experience with others.

What follows is quite lengthy, but by the end of the DesignGov pilot period we will aim to distil the key points, and support it with material covering the more extensive discussion.





The accommodation and sense of place for such an initiative is really important. Place really does matter and it affects so many aspects of how you (can) work.

It isn’t about having something ‘cool’ but there are very good reasons why there are shared characteristics for many innovation and design spaces. Exploratory and collaborative work that frequently involves external partners really requires spaces other than the standard open plan office. The accommodation ideally needs to provide for:

  • Supporting collaboration – design and innovation work requires a lot of close collaboration and the need for workshops and the ability to quickly test ideas and put up and modify ideas. Walls with whiteboards and spaces to stick paper and artefacts are great – whiteboard walls are even better
  • Flexibility – ideally you can (easily) change the shape and size of the space(s) that you have for different types of workshops and settings. The ability for team members to move to a handy discussion space is also valuable
  • Access – easy access for visitors (such as workshop participants is important). This includes basic considerations like public transport and parking availability
  • Difference (but not too different) – the space needs to encourage and allow people to think and operate differently, or risk people staying in the same mental patterns. At the same time it cannot be too jarringly different or outside of people’s experience so as to make them feel uncomfortable.

DesignGov had the experience of using or borrowing facilities for events across Canberra (and sometimes interstate) and has operated within three different accommodation settings. Each brought its own positives and challenges.


Effective communications capabilities and skills are essential, as is the ability to tap into existing communications channels. Government stakeholders (internal and external) have set patterns for how they relate with government, and creating new ones takes considerable time and effort. Where possible, identify and tap into existing channels, using introductions by established/trusted players. This is especially important for any group undertaking project by project type work where the stakeholder groups may vary between stages or projects.

It should also be recognised in any planning and the associated expectations that it is really quite hard to communicate new approaches as you are developing and testing them. It tends to be easiest to communicate things that are practiced and well established – your audience generally then has ready comparisons and mental models they can use to receive that information. When things are fluid and exploratory, it can be hard to articulate where you are at, let alone to communicate it in a concise, clear and accessible form that appeals to a diverse stakeholder group with varying levels of commitment and connection.

Consideration should also be given to being able to readily communicate across different styles, such as a preference for visual over text, narrative or factual, conceptual or practical. When you are undertaking experimental activities that might challenge people’s existing patterns or understanding, the more you can convey your messages in their preferred thinking style, the easier it is to help them get across the new idea. Of course, different decision makers and stakeholders will have different preferences, so it is advantageous to have the capability to provide for multiple styles in the one set of artefacts.

And of course all of this should be built on an accessible and distinct Internet and social media presence. When you are doing something new, you need to be easy to find and have clear and simple messages about what you are doing and why. It is also important to try and be as transparent as possible about what you are doing. When you are entering a new field it will usually be easier for those with a shared interest to find you, than it will be for you to find them. The blog has been an invaluable tool for us in making connections that we would never have made without people contacting us in response to something we had written.

Events management and logistics

Events management and logistical management are real skills – and much needed ones, from arranging visits and events with expert guests (such as David Halpern or Christian Bason), to running workshops, organising networking events, to arranging contextual interviews for projects and participation at conferences and presentations at other events. Effective innovation/design or collaborative activity requires a lot of events management and logistics work. If you are trying to influence how people think and work, then it requires a lot of supported engagement, and a lot of that will require in-person engagement through events.


We’ve been lucky enough at DesignGov to have worked with some great people from across the Australian Public Service from a number of agencies. Secondments are a good mechanism for doing so, not only to tap into the expertise and skills of other agencies, but also to help ensure that the agencies that share in the problem or issue being looked at understands what their role in it is.

Thought should be given to what happens at the end of the secondments. Equipping people with new skills and experiences and the willingness to apply different methods in their work is the (relatively) easy bit. Other aspects of the secondment process that should also be considered include:

  • What support will the secondee have when looking to apply new or different skills when they return? Or are they expected to change the current operating environment of their workplace on their own?
  • How can they be helped to bring new skills back to their workplace and help their colleagues apply them as well?
  • How will the secondee be brought up-to-speed on the project and the techniques and approaches of the team while also being given the opportunity to contribute?

Approaches for tackling this might be to ensure that a senior sponsor or mentor has been identified, one who can help make sure the newly learnt insights are not buried underneath the business as usual practices of the workplace.

Redundancy/Access to additional capacity

It is highly unlikely that you will be able to predict what exact mix of capabilities you will need when you are establishing an experimental initiative undertaking new practices. Flexibility is needed – both in the approach of the people involved, and in the ability to draw-in/release other capabilities and resources as needed.

Redundancy is also important – how will the group draw on additional support if, for instance, the office manager comes down with two types of pneumonia and another team member breaks their arm and requires surgery in the same time period? (That was certainly something that we didn’t plan for…)

Inside and outside

Is the most effective location of an innovation/design ‘lab’ looking at public sector issues within the public service?

There are a range of different models already in use around the world, from UK’s Nesta which is a not-for-profit, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation in Australia which is a not-for-profit but that was established with three years of seed funding from the public sector, or the Behavioural Insights Team (AKA the ‘Nudge Unit’) in the UK Cabinet Office which was established as a public service initiative  but is now looking at becoming a mutual/partially privatised organisation. There are also many fine commercial entities with a strong focus on public sector design/innovation/Government 2.0.

As with much of this, the most appropriate will depend heavily on the specific context. Our experience at DesignGov has been that it has been an important feature to be clearly identified as part of the public service and with the clear backing of the Australian Public Service Secretaries Board. In dealing with issues that are cross-sectoral and cross-agency – for ‘white space’ issues where the problem is not clearly understood or owned – we suspect it would be very difficult for a non public-sector organisation to gain the requisite engagement and be seen as having the necessary legitimacy. That doesn’t mean it could not be done – just that a lot of thought would need to be given to this aspect if it was attempted.

Measurement and evaluation

How do you know if the initiative is working? This can be difficult for any particular innovation, where the existing measurement frameworks and key performance indicators will naturally suit or reflect what has been done before. And it can be hard in the public sector where there are multiple factors and actors at play and where the effectiveness of any one bit of work can be hard to isolate or assess.

However, if you are dealing with an issue in the ‘white space’ involving multiple government agencies and stakeholder groups, where there is significant existing work and initiatives that you are building on, and where you are looking at system level issues rather than discrete activities, then there is an additional layer of abstraction involved.

Is it pointless then to try and measure effectiveness?

No, but it is important to recognise that it won’t be easy and that any measures that you do come by are unlikely to be readily agreed as the right measure by some (or potentially all!) stakeholders.

Additionally, we have found through our experience that an initiative like DesignGov is more suited to a developmental evaluation approach rather than a traditional ‘after the fact’ evaluation. DesignGov has involved a lot of sensing and testing. In such a setting, sometimes one thing that you thought might work, will not. Other times, it might seem to be working, but there might be other reasons why you need to change course.

An ongoing developmental evaluation approach can identify those signposts at the time, rather than later, and allow a change of direction when it is needed as opposed to recognising it after the fact.

In DesignGov we have had fortnightly internal review sessions to discuss how we have been travelling and to ensure potential issues are discussed early on. There are a range of approaches that can be taken, but if possible, evaluation should be a built-in and ongoing feature rather than something that just happens at the end.


Leadership is vitally important – isn’t it?

Leadership is important – but in a highly interconnected and inter-dependent ecosystem, leadership will take many different forms and will sometimes come from people who may not be organisational leaders. Sometimes the most important forms of leadership will be the ones that help make way for new approaches and for others to lead – to remove (or to not enforce) the barriers that may exist and to make or allow the space for innovation to occur.

Networks and understanding complexity

The introduction of such units or labs is to cut across silos and organisational forms in new ways so as to try to understand the underlying complexity in a way that makes it more amenable to resolution and to outline approaches for managing it.

Understanding the complexity requires not only knowledge of the existing system and the existing players, but knowledge about what is already being done, what has already been attempted and what trends might change the existing situation. It also requires understanding the experience of the players within the system as well as leveraging the insights, energy and expertise of others outside.

While secondments can be helpful on drawing on some of the existing expertise, a cross-agency and cross-sectoral problem means that existing expertise is unlikely to be sufficient for addressing the problem (otherwise the issue would have already been addressed).

For the business and government interactions project, it was important for us to leverage the existing networks of our partnering agencies in the project, but also to build new ones to tap into other voices and other experiences. This takes considerable time and investment, though it has significant benefit as well in understanding the issues and what may, or may not, be helpful as a response. It was also critical on reflection, that the DesignGov staff had deep and rich experience in facilitating professional and cross-sectoral networks, and who through their personal credibility and relationships could draw on established relationships to accelerate interest and engagement in design-driven innovation.

Some things will take longer than you and other people think

Like most exploratory projects, key parts will take longer than you hope or expect. When you’re doing something new, it takes a lot of time to build up the shared understanding of stakeholders of what is being attempted. And no matter how organised or prepared some things are, an exploratory process will be an evolutionary one. Different options will present themselves as will unexpected roadblocks or delays.

This is no doubt obvious; however it is even more the case when operating as part of a wider eco-system. Partners and collaborators will have priorities that will change, they will have unexpected delays or processes with which they have to abide that are outside of your control and the individuals may even move jobs so that the relationship has to be recreated.

A strategy might be to ensure multiple but complementary streams of activity that can be switched between or prioritised as needed. In an eco-system it can be very hard to identify the critical dependencies, and it will usually be the ones where you have thought “oh that bit will be fine, I can’t see how that would go wrong”.

Other times circumstances will conspire to make something easier and quicker than you might have thought. In an exploratory setting, it is important for a lab to be able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities, to be entrepreneurial.

Embracing flexibility and ambiguity

Innovation is about change, about uncertainty and about exploration. In a cross-agency, cross-sectoral setting, innovation requires not only a tolerance of ambiguity and flexibility, but an enthusiastic embrace.

An effective innovation capability requires team members to take on different roles and different tasks outside of their normal experience and comfort zone. It requires a willingness to change course and to try new approaches.

New organisational forms

DesignGov has been an experiment as an organisational form – it is not an agency or a unit of an agency, it is an attempt at cross-agency infrastructure that brings together problem ‘sharers’ in the absence of a single problem ‘owner’.

In many ways DesignGov has been about platform development rather than a single activity. It has been interesting but challenging to explore new forms of collaboration that bring together common interests from a diffuse system, as well as finding out and developing the associated protocols, the artefacts and the methods that can help underpin that collaboration.

If the public sector is going to successfully contribute to new approaches to deal with long-standing or worsening problems, then it will need to continue to explore different organisational forms and ways of working. ICT and new business models are pointing to and allowing new forms of collaboration. Some of that exploration will be about creating new rules and processes and challenging existing ones.

For me design is a key part of the underlying collaboration ‘infrastructure’, as it continually reinforces the importance of people and understanding the reasons for why things are the way they are. It also keeps discussions coming back to what the problem is, which acts as a constant reminder of where the shared interest is amongst a diffuse network.

Don’t forget to laugh

Thus far, the past 16 months of working at DesignGov have been challenging, fascinating, exhausting and revelatory (and sometimes all at once). It has been very rewarding to meet, connect with and work with so many other interesting and passionate people and to have learnt so, so much. The challenges can be daunting but they are much less so when you can remember the why and remember to keep an eye on the lighter side of things as well.