DesignGov (the Australian Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design) – the context for its establishment

[Originally published on the Australian Government Public Sector Innovation Network under a Creative Commons 3.0 BY AU licence]

This is an accompanying post to ‘Establishing, running and closing a public sector innovation lab – a reflection on the DesignGov experiment’ and should be read in conjunction to it.

The following is an attempt at a complete and consolidated annotated background to the experimental pilot initiative ‘DesignGov’, an Australian Public Service cross-agency collaborative innovation capability established by the Secretaries Board. DesignGov itself operated between July 2012 until December 2013, but this history covers some of the complementary initiatives and activities that made up the broader story around the public sector innovation agenda within the APS since 2008.

As with any history, particularly one based on personal recollection, it will miss some nuances and possibly some related developments, but it is an attempt at exploring the context for the creation of DesignGov. From a personal perspective, as someone who has been involved since this chapter of the story began in 2008, I think it is important to try and capture as much of this as possible in one place so as to help others to be able to trace the development (and end) of DesignGov and to see how an innovation usually has a long lead time and is the result of a combination of hard work, a receptive environment at the right time, accidents and coincidences.


In 2008 an expert independent panel was commissioned to review the National Innovation System. During the Review, the Panel undertook extensive consultations and also conducted a number of expert roundtables, including one on public sector innovation.

The Panel’s report Venturous Australia – building strength in innovation found that “At least compared with other countries, Australia’s public sector is relatively innovative.” It suggested however that there was significant potential for the public sector to do more.

The possibilities here are so substantial, so full of promise (and sometimes so challenging to existing cultures) that it is neither possible nor desirable for this report to spell out comprehensively what might or should occur. Furthermore, many developments will and should occur ‘organically’ within agencies rather than in response to the dictates of others. (p. 129)

Notwithstanding this desire to not be overly prescriptive, the Panel made a number of recommendations, including calling:

    • for the establishment of an advisory committee of web 2.0 practitioners “to propose and help steer governments as they experiment with Web 2.0 technologies and ideas”
    • for the establishment of an Advocate for Government Innovation.

In June 2009 a Government 2.0 Taskforce was formed, Chaired by Dr Nicholas Gruen (who was also a member of the expert Panel that conducted the Review of the National Innovation System). Amongst other things, this panel was tasked with providing advice to assist Government to “build a culture of online innovation within Government – to ensure that government is receptive to the possibilities created by new collaborative technologies and uses them to advance its ambition to continually improve the way it operates.”

In 2009 the Australian National Audit Office commissioned a better practice guide for public sector innovation. The development of this guide included collecting case studies of innovative practice within the APS as well as interviews with senior decision makers, including some Secretaries, as to the barriers to and enablers of innovation. One of the guide’s main developers was consultant Grahame Cook, a former Deputy Secretary.

The resultant Innovation in the Public Sector: Enabling Better Performance, Driving New Directions was released in December 2009 by the Auditor General.

This Better Practice Guide (Guide) provides a decision-support framework designed to assist agencies to manage innovation and to encourage an innovation culture across the Australian government public sector. Calculated risk taking is a necessary feature of most types of innovation and this framework is intended to provide a ‘risk aware’ approach to innovation that counters ‘risk-averse’ behaviour. (p.6)

Concurrently with these processes, the Management Advisory Committee (MAC) (as the senior leadership group for the APS was then called) approved a proposal from the then Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research for a cross-agency team to undertake an investigation into public sector innovation and to make recommendations about how it might be better facilitated.

The project will consider action required to strengthen an innovation culture in the provision of government services. It will explore how innovation can be further facilitated on an ongoing basis and the need for possible reforms. (Empowering Change, Terms of Reference, p. 78)

This MAC project team was overseen by a steering committee and was Chaired by Deputy Secretary Patricia Kelly (who had been the ex officio member of the Expert Panel for the Review of the National Innovation System) and also included Dr Nicholas Gruen, given his role as Chair of the Gov 2.0 Taskforce.

The MAC project team included two staff from the (then) Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, one from the Australian Taxation Office, one from the (then) Department of Finance and Deregulation, one from (the then) Centrelink, and one from the (then) Department of Health and Ageing.

The MAC project was run complementary to the Gov 2.0 Taskforce work, providing a focus on the framework for innovation as a process, with the Gov 2.0 emphasis being on facilitating specific elements of online innovation.

In late 2009 a further related process was announced by the then Government, involving a high-level group looking at the overall reform of the APS. The resultant 2010 report, Ahead of the Game: Blueprint for the Reform of Australian Government Administration, included an acknowledgement of the importance of innovation.

The goal is to transform the APS into a strategic, forward looking organisation, with an intrinsic culture of evaluation and innovation. (p.xi)

The MAC project report Empowering Change: Fostering Innovation in the Australian Public Service was released on 21 May 2010 by the then Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Terry Moran AC.

These four concurrent and inter-related, but discrete, processes provided much of the framework for understanding, improving and enacting innovation within the APS.

While any division of the contribution of the processes will be somewhat arbitrary and incomplete, a rough separation could be:

    • ANAO Better practice guide – establishes a framework for managing individual innovative projects and provides a number of important case studies demonstrating the practice of innovation within specific contexts
    • Gov 2.0 Taskforce – provides a framework for understanding the practice of online innovation and open engagement using the Internet as a multi-channel and multi-directional platform
    • Blueprint for Reform – provides a framework for the reform of the APS and for strengthening and developing its capabilities
    • MAC project – provides a framework for understanding the innovation process within the public sector context, its barriers and how it might be more systematically embedded as a functional capability within organisations.

The initial proposal

The initial proposal for DesignGov originated from the MAC project report Empowering Change.

Empowering Change identified:

    • Barriers that Australian public servants face when innovating
    • Sources of innovation
    • Those who can help design, implement and deliver innovation
    • What agencies, team, and individuals can do to foster innovation.

The report made twelve recommendations around the following five themes:

    • Strategy and culture
    • Leadership
    • Systemic/structural issues
    • Resourcing and managing innovation in the Australian Public Service
    • Recognition, sharing and learning.

One of the recommendations put forward was the need for a capability similar to that of Mindlab, a Danish public service initiative.

The MAC team had become aware of MindLab through the visit of a colleague to Denmark. Their visit to MindLab was not planned, being rather a serendipitous meeting that was the result of another planned meeting falling through. That visit however was an eye-opener in that it provided the MAC project team with a new sense of what was possible and how the overall innovation system could possibly be improved by drawing on and developing such a capability within Australia.

The case for such a capability seemed intuitive to the project team. The public service was faced with a number of tricky issues that cut across multiple portfolios and which required an innovative response. New approaches, involving different mixes of disciplines and methodologies, needed to be tried. It was difficult to envisage how such activity could happen through existing structures within individual agencies or through existing collaborative ‘infrastructure’.

This revelation was reflected in Recommendation 8:

Collaboration and experimentation are two key inputs to realising innovation. To embed these into the public sector, the APS should establish a collaborative experimentation program, modelled on the Danish MindLab, to develop and trial solutions to significant and cross agency problems in areas including policy and service delivery. A key activity under this program would be the development and implementation of collaborative pilots and trials. (p. 74)

As noted by Patricia Kelly, then Deputy Secretary overseeing the public sector innovation work, when she visited MindLab in mid-2010:

While some Australian public sector agencies are also undertaking a number of the things that MindLab is doing, it seems to me that MindLab has some distinct advantages. It approaches its projects in a systematic manner and brings in a diversity of skills often not utilised by the Australian public sector. Also, by using a cross agency innovation hub, the learnings and experience from its projects are recorded and shared.

An evolving proposition

After the release of Empowering Change, in August 2010 the Secretaries Board (the heads of each of the Australian Government Portfolio Departments) met and approved a project to oversee implementing recommendations from the report. The then Secretary of the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science and Research, Mark Paterson announced:

The project will look at ways to further the key directions of the Empowering Change report ie:

    • To develop a more open and collaborative approach to public policy and administration;
    • To integrate innovation into our work in a more strategic and systematic way;
    • To develop and apply the right skill sets to facilitate innovative approaches; and
    • To share, recognise and reward innovation in the APS, both to increase learning and to develop a more innovative culture.

The project was led by members of the APS 200 (a senior leadership group comprised of the most senior public servants, being Australian Public Service Senior Executive Service Band 3 officers and Secretaries) and was Chaired by Patricia Kelly.

The project team considered a number of possible models as to how recommendation 8 could be implemented and had discussions with a number of relevant experts, including Christian Bason (Director of MindLab).

A variety of issues were considered, including:

    • How such a collaborative experimentation venture could involve the private sector, or even if the private sector could/should do it completely
    • The possible involvement of the State and Territory public services
    • Governance options
    • Skills requirements
    • Funding models
    • What problems the venture would best focus on.

In April 2011 the APS 200 Project Committee reported to the Secretaries Board with some detailed information about how individual agencies could encode innovation within their operations, as well as further detail about this collaborative experimentation idea. The Project Committee recommended “establishment of an APS Design Centre be considered, using new skills and techniques to engage with and respond to wicked problems and cross cutting issues”.

This recommendation was supported by the Secretaries Board in the subsequent release in June 2011 of the ‘APS Innovation Action Plan’, signed on to by all members of the Board. The Action Plan noted that:

To enable the APS to meet the challenges of delivering solutions to today’s complex problems and to explore new methods in solution formulation, development and delivery, this Action Plan proposes the following initiatives:

APS Design Centre

A centre (or centres) dedicated to innovative approaches could assist to:

    • Develop and test new approaches to complex policy challenges and to enhance government program delivery
    • Build agency and institutional capability for collaboration and innovation
    • Apply and test tools/processes and bring new skills to support innovation in the APS
    • Capture, synthesise and disseminate examples of best practice in Australia and overseas
    • Respond to citizen demand for responsive and innovative services.

The proposed initiative could inspire creativity and collaboration and provide a platform to test innovative solutions. It could help practitioners to adopt new perspectives in thinking about a problem.

Such an approach would facilitate cross-agency interaction involving public servants, academics, citizens and businesses to create solutions for societal problems. It could fast track building the capacity of the APS to develop innovative policy and service deliver, keeping the Aps at the forefront of citizen delivery and responsiveness.

Development work on this approach is underway, with an outcome expected in late 2011.

After this, a further cross-agency meeting took place of relevant Senior Executive Service and stakeholders about the idea and how to translate it into reality. There was discussion around the possible scale of the initiative and the working arrangements. A clear consensus was not reached, and an agreement was made between the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education to engage a consultant to prepare a business case.

Building the case

A consultant was engaged and consultations were undertaken with key stakeholders (including Christian Bason of MindLab, key Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries, and select other interested/expert parties).

The resultant report addressed:

    • The background and need
    • Key issues
    • Options and projects
    • A draft prospectus
    • A draft business plan.

The report provided a firmer grasp of specific details such as costing, staffing, timing and accommodation.

This material was put forward to the Secretaries Board for their consideration in December 2012, identifying a choice between three options:

    • Full implementation (based on the MindLab model) involving ongoing funding for at least three years
    • Demonstration Pilot approach involving at least a 16 month pilot and a smaller budget
    • Monitor and assess current developments.

The decision of the Secretaries Board was for an 18 month pilot, to be led by the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education on behalf of the APS.

This will provide an opportunity to demonstrate the value of design thinking across the APS and to ensure the Centre’s activities complement the growing body of design expertise the already exists within a number of APS agencies.

Preparing for launch

In late January 2012 the then Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education advertised for a CEO for the Centre, with the intention to engage the CEO as a contractor rather than being employed as an APS position.

In May 2012 the Charter document for the Centre, and the members of its overseeing Board, were announced.

The members of the Board for the Centre, and their details/positions as at May 2012 were:

    • Chair – Greg Smith, Adjunct Professor, Economic and Social Policy, Australian Catholic University (Canberra), Director for the Centre for Policy Development and member of the Commonwealth Grants Commission
    • Michael D’Ascenzo AO, Commissioner of Taxation, Australian Taxation Office
    • Jane Halton PSM, Secretary, Department of Health and Ageing
    • Lisa Paul AO PSM, Secretary, Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations
    • Dr Don Russell, Secretary, Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education
    • Chris Lonchampt, private sector design and innovation thinker
    • The CEO of the Centre.

The Charter document outlined that the Centre would be a collaborative pilot initiative running for a period of up to 18 months and that it would “undertake two to three projects that are:

    • Customer-facing and user-centric in nature
    • Of strategic significance and not readily undertaken within the normal operations and existing processes of government
    • Cross-cutting or multi-portfolio in scope and of central interest to several departments, and
    • Would benefit from new thinking, in particular a design thinking approach.”

On June 26 it was announced that Jane Treadwell was appointed as the CEO for the Centre.

The Pilot period

An overview of the main developments of the pilot is captured in a visual depiction of DesignGov’s ‘journey’. The experience and history of DesignGov can also be found in the blog posts from the DesignGov team. The key insights and lessons about establishing such a capability are detailed in another blog post.