Doing Good (Design) in Government

It can often be difficult to see what true transformation of government or public services really looks like and it can be very challenging to make a change, and see the impact you’re making on people’s lives. But it’s worth it. I’m here to talk about what we can do, and how we can make real change – even with the machinery of government sometimes acting against us.

Kate Conrick – Doing Good (Design) in Government

Everyone who has interacted with government has probably said something like it was the worst website I’ve ever used. You hear it a lot when you work in government.

In goverment Kate finds she’s usually starting at the bottom of the pyramid – simply does it meet needs and nowhere near is it enjoyable to use. Building things that work is hard, making them great is harder.

Building the wrong thing is wasteful; and people in government are aware they’re spending public funds. But the environment makes it very hard to make changes around entrenched processes and power structures.

Digital transformation is a big focus for all governments in the modern world. However in Australian government it’s not yet evident in areas outside the DTA. In most areas it’s just digitisation, a lift-and-shift change and not the digital revolution needed for profound improvements.

But then, small changes in government can still have a huge impact on people.

Example: a form which cannot register someone as a gender other than male or female; but has a message acknowledging this is a problem. It’s a step, however small, towards changing a system steeped in old assumptions.

Referring to the double-diamond, in government people tend to focus on solution validation – bringing designers in very late in the delivery process.

People don’t trust the government, the robodebt debacle demonstrated that the measures applied in government can be disconnected from the impact on the humans they affect. People were placed in extreme stress, but the savings made were praised.

At the ATO, Kate’s team was tasked with….. everything. Improve anything in ATO Ecosystem. Which is so big people pretty much didn’t know the full breadth of organisations or the number of people involved. They grew from two people to being a reasonably large cross-disciplinary team.

They still had the problem of being invited to give input on projects, sometimes just days before the planned release date. There were some that were so far off course the project needed to be stopped.

In practice this meant there were opportunities to talk about better processes; and to assist and mentor people on lean and agile processes. It was a challenge just to get people to accept the idea that early failure was not bad failure, it was part of an exploratory process.

Data and evidence really worked wherever it was available, particularly when they had the chance to take people through the process that created the evidence.

Understand your stakeholder’s needs. Treat it like a form of user research – what are they dealing with? What issues do they face? What’s the political situation for them? It’s realistic and useful to spend time on this.

The ATO is aware it needs to build trust with Australians; and is starting to set internal KPIs around fostering “willing participation” from its users.

Big changes can also be quite tricky and have unintended effects – halving the time something takes can put jobs at risk. What’s intended as a good thing can still create a bad result for some people. Or simply “going paperless” without a realistic solution for how people would get the form they used to pick up from a post office.

Internally UX helped to convince people to change, or to explain a problem in a way that motivates action. They were able to show a comparative evaluation of a portal against more-successful projects.

Challenge. Use evidence. Make Change. Do good.