DesignGov as prototype of the future public service?

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

We have discussed how DesignGov has been an ‘extreme user’ for the public service. But might we also consider how DesignGov has acted in some ways as a sensor, as a test of how the public service might operate in the future? A prototype if you will?

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the possible futures of the public service/public sector and a recognition that the current model, developed for a different time and context, may not be as suited to the current challenges as it needs to be.

Deloitte have proposed the concept of ‘GovCloud’ as one possible model of what the future of the public service could be:

Creating an adaptable government workforce would require providing an unprecedented degree of flexibility. To accomplish this, we could draw from a game-changing concept in the technology world: cloud computing. Major organizations and small startups alike increase their flexibility by sharing storage space, information, and resources in a “cloud”. Why not move beyond computing and apply the cloud model to the workforce? A cloud-based government workforce, or GovCloud, could comprise employees who undertake creative, problem-focused work. (Deloitte ”GovCloud”)

There are likely many other possible models. In some ways, DesignGov has been an exploration of a different model for a public service initiative. It has been similar to a start-up in operation, it has been a different collaborative model, and it has been a new type of organisation form. So what might DesignGov’s experience be able tell us about the possible futures of the public service?

Small, flexible, cross-disciplinary team

DesignGov was a small team, ranging from four people at its beginning to a maximum of ten at its peak, involving secondees from different agencies. It was a cross-disciplinary team, with designers and public servants from a range of backgrounds. It required learning and applying new skills at short notice.

Options and pivots

DesignGov was developing and testing new business models as it went. As a small team DesignGov had to be responsive to external developments and changing circumstances. It had to keep numerous options open as there was no certainty as to which ones would ‘pay off’. It had to pivot and change direction depending on the signals from the environment and from stakeholders and investors. DesignGov had to be entrepreneurial.

Networked, collaborative, partnership

DesignGov was reliant on its networks, its collaborators and its partners. As a small team with few resources within the larger system of over 160,000 public servants, the only impacts that could be achieved were reliant on the broader network. Without a political or administrative mandate, DesignGov was a true collaboration, involving different stakeholders and government agencies on an equal footing. DesignGov was a true partnership. It recognised that the most important resources and skills were the ones outside of its own team.

Understanding the problem

DesignGov had the luxury of being immersed in the problem space before having to define the problem. The first half of the project was about ‘reframing’ the issues. While this is done in many policy spaces, DesignGov had the ability and time to use alternative research methods and to really understand the problem from the perspective of those experiencing it (businesses, business intermediaries and public servants) before being expected to ‘fix’ the problem.


DesignGov also had the opportunity to iterate and to evolve its thinking. Rather than a more traditional project management/delivery approach, DesignGov could test and refine and redo. DesignGov has been prototyping its proposals with those impacted and influencing, not simply the ‘controllers’  – refining rather  than just presenting them as ‘the answer’.

Tolerant of uncertainty, ambiguity and failure

Operating in an environment of high uncertainty, DesignGov required an ability to embrace ambiguity, to embrace the knowledge that we did not know what would happen next. DesignGov also tried to discuss failure, recognising that success could have many guises, but failure is usually far more concrete and certain.

DesignGov insights into the system

DesignGov has also started to paint a picture of how such capabilities and approaches might manifest across the public service system as a whole. The project on business and government interactions focused on business, but from our discussions with stakeholders it seems that the issues raised were  (and most likely some of the solutions will be) similar or the same as those experienced by other segments of society as well when they interact with government.

Emerging Issues Detection

Public servants cannot predict the future but they can prepare for what it might be. A systematic emerging issues detection would allow for the public service to better direct its attentions to many issues before they become a problem, and to better recognise the intelligence it already holds. It might also allow for better and more productive dialogue with stakeholders about the nature of upcoming changes and the implications for how government interacts with other parts of society. This is in many ways very compatible with a model such as ‘GovCloud’ and of having a shared capability that can be leveraged by different areas for different needs but drawing on the same tool.


Public servants have been trying to improve how they communicate with citizens and stakeholders for many, many years – but perhaps a more productive approach might be to leverage the existing wisdom of the crowd, and have those who have been successful in navigating government to share their experience and their answers. A peer-to-peer crowd-support capability such as BabelGov could provide a new and better way for helping people find out what they need to know from government. Again, this fits nicely with a ‘GovCloud’ type conception of how the public service could operate.


Similarly the public service has always been looking to improve its consultation practices. The possibility of ensuring that all consultations can be found and interacted with from one place, of having a platform that offers public servants a rich array of different possible consultation methods that can meet their specific circumstances and that can best meet the preferences of their stakeholders is a powerful one. This matches with the ‘GovCloud’ idea – a shared capability and resource that can be drawn on and adapted to a wide range of settings.

Fix-It Squads

Increasingly the problems that the public service deals with are ones that can only be dealt with by the active involvement of those who are experiencing the problem. The idea of Fix-It Squads, of a tiger team working with those who share the problem, recognises this. In some ways DesignGov has itself been a prototype of a Fix-It Squad. It has been a team drawn together and resourced from agencies with a common issue and has applied itself to a particular problem. While a Fix-It Squad would be more targeted, it fits with the idea of ‘GovCloud’ and of drawing on the wider capabilities of the public service to ensure the right skills and experiences are applied to the problem at hand.

Service by Design

How do ensure consistency yet be flexible and responsive? The idea of Service by Design is to strengthen the underpinning ‘infrastructure’ of the public service, and to provide more consistency in some of the underlying principles and the tools used across agencies for interacting with citizens and stakeholders. A ‘GovCloud’ model, or any other for that matter, will require more consistency in some basic elements of how the public service operates so that public servants who might move from team to team will not have to create or learn new core practices and principles each time.

The future?

These concepts are not the only possible models or ideas of how the public service could evolve or change over time. They may not even be a ‘good’ way or the ‘best’ way. But what they do is provide a very possible conception of what the Australian Public Service could look like in a way that delivers on the needs of citizens, that provides satisfaction to public servants and that promises a new way of working. I personally think that DesignGov has been an exploration of what the future of the public service could be, and while not providing the answer, it has provided a lot of insights that we can draw on and consider as the reform of the public service continues.