The DesignGov experiment – what did it test?

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

DesignGov was established as an experimental initiative to test new design-led innovation approaches to resolving cross-agency problems. It was set up as an 18 month pilot, running from July 2012 until December 2013.

Now that the pilot is ending and as we continue to codify the lessons and insights from this experiment, it is worth reflecting on just what was different about DesignGov and what it did test.

The DesignGov experiment

DesignGov was very much an experiment. While building on the growing design practices that already existed within the Australian Public Service (APS), and drawing inspiration from MindLab and the growing number of public sector innovation ‘labs’ around the world, DesignGov attempted several things that we think were new or that are worth noting.


DesignGov applied a design-led innovation approach to a whole-of-government problem. Whole-of-government has been spoken about for many years, but it is still something considered hard to achieve. DesignGov shed some new light on the how of whole-of-government.

The project that DesignGov undertook on business and government interactions was a look at a system-wide problem that every agency contributes to, even if they may not have a good understanding of how. The project was done with an ‘outside-in’ approach and worked to understand what the (cumulative) problem was from the viewpoint of businesses, as opposed to a segmented approach of what the problem was from X agency’s point of view, or from the collective viewpoint of agencies X, Y and Z.

It also looked to understand the problem from the point of view of the public servant, recognising that the people within the system can be as frustrated with the status quo or with processes as those on the outside (though sometimes for very different reasons).

New problems and needs require new organisational forms and practices

DesignGov was a new type of organisation. It had multiple ‘shareholders’ but was funded as a whole of APS capability. It was a true collaboration, rather than an activity where one agency was explicitly in charge or in control. It explored issues in a way that involved everyone as equal partners.

In order to get investment into the business and government interactions project, DesignGov adapted the investment prospectus model, seeking investment from the different areas within agencies where there was interest.

Within the ecosystem of problem-solvers and change makers, the relationships and networks that DesignGov joined and created, became part of the collaboration infrastructure.  Leveraging these relationships and common interests became part of DesignGov’s business model, drawing on and building from the people and capabilities in design, particularly the Australian Tax Office and Customs and Border Protection agency, strategic design consultancies, and schools of business and design.

A government ‘start-up’

DesignGov was set up in conditions that are more akin to that of a start-up enterprise rather than that of a traditional public sector initiative. It had a small team with a small operational funding pool, varied accommodation, and a diverse set of loosely interested stakeholders. It had a promising idea but needed to develop its own business model and the associated business practices. It reported to a very high level audience yet was also at the edge of the system to enable a level of freedom rather than tied to its centre with the attached safety.

New types of infrastructure

Due to the nature of the issues it was looking at, its structure and its position within the broader system, DesignGov was also looking at ideas, concepts and behaviours that did not automatically fit within the existing system. The five prototype areas being looked at are APS-wide infrastructure elements, rather than activities that can be easily assigned to a particular agency.

Design-led innovation and policy

DesignGov was tasked with applying design and innovation across the spectrum of public sector activity, from the operational, to service delivery and to policy. It has actively tested the application of design tools and approaches to the policy space, something that has rarely been done. The business and government interactions project covers all aspects of the public sector and required a mix of methods. The broader networking and design capability discussions also examined how design and policy might fit together and some of the tensions that lie within doing so.

To the extreme

Though not intentionally DesignGov has, due to having been placed at the intersection of multiple rule sets and interests, been an ‘extreme user’ of the public sector. By interacting with so many different processes in trying to get 12 (or more) agencies to truly collaborate, DesignGov has helped test the limits of current approaches and highlight opportunities for improvement. And in some ways DesignGov has been an immersive 18 month ethnographic study of the whys and wherefores of how the public service operates, which has brought its own insights.

A transparent undertaking

From its very beginning DesignGov has attempted to be very transparent in its operations, sharing many of the insights and being open in its processes and the opportunities to be involved. There is always room to improve in these things, but DesignGov has documented many of its experiences (and will continue to do until the 20th of December) through the blog, through presentations and through its networks.

What was captured from the experiment?

The experiment has generated a lot of ‘data’ or insights. It has given a lot of material to consider and reflect on. There are many lessons that we are in the process of codifying, though noting that some may take some considerable time to process and to recognise what the true insights from this experiment have been.

I do not think that anyone would argue that the drivers for undertaking something like DesignGov are diminished. There continues to be a need for better inter-agency collaboration to address complex problem. There continues to be a need to do better to meet the increasing needs and expectations of citizens, businesses and government stakeholders. There continues to be a need to reduce costs. I would argue that these factors alone mean that there continues to be a need for design-led innovation and/or other approaches that can unlock new shared value for addressing public sector problems.

The experience of DesignGov will feed into the ongoing discussion of how to apply design and innovation to public sector priorities. It will join the experiences and lessons of other countries such as the UK with its planned Cabinet Office policy lab, MindLab in Denmark, Singapore’s Human Experience Lab, La 27e Région in France and the many others that exist around the world.

We will continue to codify our lessons from the DesignGov experiment over the next two weeks. The transitional arrangements for this website and its information are being finalised, and once that has occurred, an update will be posted on this website.