[Originally published on Australian Government DesignGov under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]
One of the notions used in design is to look to the extreme, to the users who have atypical needs and who interact with a product or service in ways that the majority don’t. Such users can signify emerging needs, identify work-arounds that reveal limits with what exists and opportunities for improvements or gains that others might use/have if it was easier to do so.
In some ways DesignGov has been an extreme user of the Australian Public Service (APS).
DesignGov has had multiple ‘owners’ within the APS, and multiple ‘investors’. For the project looking at business and government interactions there were twelve agencies that provided investment (either financial or in-kind). DesignGov had to sign agreements with multiple agencies, and was subject to the intersection of multiple rule sets.
DesignGov was hosted by the Crawford School at the Australian National University but administratively ‘belonged’ to its lead Department (what is now the Department of Industry).
DesignGov reported to a high level Board, and in turn was accountable to the full membership of the Secretaries Board.
Overall DesignGov, as an experimental initiative, has experienced or involved:
- Secondees from multiple agencies
- Investments from multiple agencies
- ICT infrastructure and support (and policies) of multiple organisations
- Accommodation from multiple organisations
- Procurement and financial policies of multiple agencies
- Workshops and events with staff of varying levels from multiple agencies
- Investigation of a cross-agency problem from the viewpoint of stakeholders, agencies and staff
- Application of new approaches, methodologies, platforms and tools.
This has put DesignGov in an unusual position – one of an extreme user of the systems and machinery of how the public service works and how it conducts collaborative work and how the public sector as a whole has been perceived from the outside. We have, though not deliberately or purposefully, been a sensor in some ways of how the public service operates and possible issues or points of friction in those systems.
Insights and reflections
In the spirit of reflection and ensuring that as much value is leveraged from the experience of DesignGov as possible, we thought we would share some of the possible issues and opportunities that we have identified.
As with qualitative design research findings these are not exhaustive or absolute. Nor are they rigorously quantified judgements or assessments of the public service. They are however some possible insights that might merit further discussion and exploration. They are offered as starting points for conversations rather than definitive conclusions.
Communications and information flows
For a variety of reasons, many of which have long-standing and reasoned justification, different agencies have different internal communications channels for distributing messages to staff. However, in the event of a distributed cross-agency initiative that may be based on activity or interest rather than reporting lines or accountabilities, it can be very difficult and time consuming for an ‘external’ body to get key messages out to relevant areas. DesignGov worked with existing networks, interest groups and attempted to leverage the reach of external information providers in order to get key messages (e.g. the opportunity to be involved in or to contribute to the business and government interactions project), however the depth of reach varied dramatically.
Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 platforms potentially offer the opportunity to rethink or to supplement some of these information channels, which as our research highlights, would be actively embraced. For instance this might include the ability for a centralised agglomeration of activity updates from across the public service that individual officers could subscribe to or monitor based on their particular work/activity interests.
On a related note, there are a growing number of networks and communities of practice across the public service or involving members of the public service. These cover interest areas such as Gov 2.0/social media, public sector innovation, policy visualisation, or skill/professional interest areas such as change management, project management, regulation, or activity based networks such as around procurement.
These networks offer a rich means of sharing information, lessons, insights and wisdom across the public service. They can help provide short-cuts for officers dealing with difficult or challenging issues by drawing on the knowledge of others, enhancing productivity and results.
However many of these networks are fragmented or not easily discoverable or accessible. There would appear to be an opportunity to better curate such networks on a shared portal so that individual officers can more easily discover the groups that are of relevance and interest and to reduce the search costs or risk of duplicating existing resources.
Tools and capabilities
Again on a similar note, there currently exist a number of toolkits, training capabilities and resources within individual agencies, or even within parts of individual agencies. Many of these toolkits and resources appear to be well regarded within their own agency, however there is limited awareness about them between agencies.
There would appear to be an opportunity for greater sharing of key internal resources so as to minimise duplication and unnecessary agency interpretations of core practices, without constraining tailored and customised approaches that suit an agency’s particular business needs. DesignGov worked with an APS design community of practice to create a common language and currency for cross-agency initiatives. The participants’ active involvement demonstrates their interest and value in creating a shared resource/repository.
Conceptual currency/shared understanding and the infrastructure for collaboration
DesignGov had the opportunity to work with different agencies and different line areas around a shared problem area – trying to improve business and government interactions. What we found was that undertaking inter-agency collaboration in an exploratory manner revealed significant differences in how the underlying issue was understood.
In areas where there is no clear lead agency or established political mandate, the ability of the public service to undertake collaborative ventures appears to be constrained by a lack of shared underpinning conceptual frameworks, common mechanisms to manage funds and accountabilities and language. The predictor of the success of collaboration seems to be subject to the extent to which diverse conceptions of the problem, agreement on desirable outcomes and methodological responses can be respected and reconciled, rather than by the significance of the issue being collaborated around.
This is not surprising – different agencies have different traditions and views of how problems are understood. However there would seem to be an opportunity to expand the range of mechanisms and protocols that can be used to help agencies come to a shared understanding of a problem before trying to ‘resolve’ it. This might be through the development of more sophisticated infrastructure for collaboration.
In the experience of DesignGov it would appear that the public service has limited mechanisms and channels by which to collectively test or rapidly iterate initiatives. There appears to be considerable anxiety within the APS about trying new things which may not succeed, even when existing measures have been identified or labelled as insufficient or lacking, or alternatively where there is low visibility/risk in trying something different.
DesignGov’s experience has highlighted the value of a range of design tools and methods for quickly and cheaply exploring and identifying possible issues before committing to a specific implementation pathway. Reframing the problem, personas, prototyping and many other techniques can play a valuable role in helping safely test and iterate ideas. There is considerable opportunity to use such methods more consistently and even sharing or pooling the personas of important stakeholders.
There is a widespread perception that many decision-making processes are unnecessarily escalated to senior level staff. The underlying reasons for this perception may be due to increased complexity (or even complicatedness) in decision-making. They may also relate to an increase in the general rate of change, which has removed many of the precedents and contributed to undermining a certainty of process that allowed officers to feel comfortable in making certain types of decisions and to have a full appreciation of the relevant risks. In some cases it may have also been contributed to by decreased resourcing, requiring higher authority (though not delegation) to commit resources.
There would not appear to be easy answers to this challenge, however it is something that should be considered when new initiatives are embarked upon and when innovative responses to problems are being sought.
These are some of the signals drawn from our experience and are by no means a diagnosis or assessment of the public service. We think they may be matters that are worthy of further consideration and contemplation. We offer these insights up to our colleagues and to our stakeholders in the wider public sector for their reflection. We hope they are of interest and/or use.