Thursday May 30, 2024

Six tips for incorporating human-centred design and complex systems thinking in your public sector work

  • Six tips for incorporating human-centred design and complex systems thinking in your public sector work image

Heard about the benefits of centring human needs in your policies and programs but not sure where to start? Dr Nina Terrey from ThinkPlace, Professor Brenton Prosser from UNSW and Bec Bodel from the Australian Taxation Office highlight the basics of design-led approaches in complex systems.

As pressure on policy development and service delivery continues to grow in the public sector, incorporating human-centred design approaches from the get-go can help you focus on people’s needs, build consensus, and create more evidence-based policy.

“Our societies are increasingly diverse. The people that we’re designing for are increasingly diverse. The world is more complex, and I think the only way that we can really tackle that is by thinking in a design-led way,” Bec Bodel, acting assistant commissioner of behavioural insights and design at the Australian Taxation Office says.

Know your purpose

When you start out on your design journey, make sure to identify why you’re trying to achieve change, and how this aligns with your organisation’s overall strategic direction.

“The first thing is to know your purpose, know what you’re trying to do, setting a really clear goal, understanding what it is that you’re trying to deliver, make sure everyone’s on the same page,” Bec says.

“Critical to this is understanding where the organisation that you’re in is at now, what its strategic purpose is, and what some of the most critical challenges that it faces are,” Dr Nina Terrey, chief sustainability and equity officer at ThinkPlace adds.

Be empathetic

If you want to connect with people, empathy is key.

A simple activity Nina recommends is to pair people up and ask them to design a gift for each other. During the activity, neither party is allowed to ask what gift the other would like.

“You have two minutes to genuinely understand that other person, who they are, what they’re about, what drives them, motivates them, maybe things that are worrying them or their deep ambitions. And then you have to, based off what you are hearing, try to unpack the deep need that that person has and then rapidly construct a gift. Then you do it vice versa, you share the gift back and the partner rates [the gift] as to whether they felt that met the need.”

Look at the bigger picture

Professor Brenton Prosser from UNSW says that governments and communities have collaborated extensively during crises, and this is what’s needed to solve today’s and tomorrow’s challenges.

“We would all agree the nature of the policy problems that we’re looking at here are complex, uncertain, changing, [there’s] no simple solution, and they’re cross-portfolio. We’re not going to address these sorts of challenges unless we take a collaborative with the community and a cross-portfolio approach.”

Nina recommends looking beyond your own sector to bring the best and brightest to solve a problem to the table.

“If we’re transitioning communities because of our commitment to climate and net zero, then we really need to bring the best to bear to that.”

Build your literacy

If you want to design for the future, make sure to build your literacy on emerging topics such as sustainability or regenerative design.

“My advice is to the people who are practising design … across the public sector: just have a think about how you are developing your design-led expertise and think about some of those intersectional areas or topics that you can start to explore and start to build your literacy.”

Look for kindred spirits

When you’re first starting out your design thinking journey, it can be quite overwhelming. Our panellists recommend you connect with like-minded people whenever you can.

“That would be my starting point, looking at building a network and a community to actually support you in thinking and reflecting,” Brenton says.

“There is an international designing government community. They’re having a conference that’s coming up in October. It’s a virtual one. So, you can be a part of a global community,” Bec adds.

 Start small

Bec reminds people that they don’t need to follow every design step in the book to improve their work – little changes can go a long way.

There are a million different playbooks out there and things that you can try that can help you depending on the problem you are trying to solve or the problem that you’re approaching. [There might be a] different tool that might be best placed to help you. It’s tiny steps, every day, that help change your mindset and help you think about the organisation.”  

Finally, Brenton says that human-centred design is a unique opportunity to create better policies and bring your stakeholders along with you.

“Human-centred design and co-design are ways of coming to ministers with an evidence base and giving them an independent perspective on the public  they serve.”


  • Bec Bodel image
    Bec Bodel

    Acting Assistant Commissioner of Behavioural Insights and Design
    Australian Taxation Office

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