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Parliament House in Canberra

'The evolution of our Australian Public Service'

It’s not every day that a recently-elected prime Minister uses the pulpit of the Institute of Public Administration Australia to send an explicit message to the Australian Public Service. But that’s precisely what Scott Morrison did recently.

It was a speech that will gladden the hearts of some in the APS, perhaps fanning uncertainty in others. The Prime Minister’s stated intention? 

“To show the way forward for the evolution of our public service”

While it may have felt like part pep-talk, part rallying cry, there was plenty in the Prime Minister’s speech to encourage those who have long advocated for greater use of human-centred design and co-design methods across the APS.

And that’s a discussion that ThinkPlace is proud to have led and contributed to for well over a decade.

Once, these methods may have been seen as modish fads on the edge of government service delivery, or the exclusive domain of a small, design-literate bunch of evangelists. Increasingly, however, they are absolutely fundamental to how government delivers to citizens. 

Human-centred design is simultaneously the best opportunity to obtain social licence and the greatest form of risk mitigation that the APS has available to it. Creating programs and policies with involvement from (and empathy for) end users is the surest way to ensure successful implementation and adoption, not to mention the safest way to avoid embarrassment and public failure.  

These methods also allow governments to innovate and test ideas rapidly. And the insights generated from prototype testing of innovative solutions allow us to create scalable change that can have a direct impact on improving peoples’ experience.

We attended the Prime Minister’s speech, eager to see how his vision for the future APS aligned with our own. Here’s what we took away… 


Ben Evans's profile'
Ben Evans
Natalie Coyles's profile'
Natalie Coyles
digital transformation is a major challenge and opportunity facing the Australian Public Service
Digital transformation is a major challenge and opportunity facing the Australian Public Service

1. Clear Line of Sight

The PM says: Morrison expects all members of the Australian Public Service to have a ‘clear line of sight’ to how their work improves the lives of Australians.  What does this mean? Accountability and social licence require two-way visibility. The Australian people want value for money delivered by the APS. They want to know that the difficulties they experience in their everyday interactions with government are being addressed. For APS members, a focus on citizens as the “end users” of government services can be an important pivot. The PM wants services designed from the outside in.

We say: ThinkPlace believes strongly in the transformative power of human-centred methodologies to design services that are informed and guided by end users. It is virtually impossible to understand clearly how an intervention improves the lives of Australians if you have not included those people meaningfully during the discovery process and, oftentimes, during the design process itself. At ThinkPlace we specialise in this kind of inclusive co-design and engagement. It requires strong intent, the right mindsets and methodologies and a depth of experience and empathy. 


2. Direct and Expect

The PM says: Everyone needs to understand their roles and responsibilities and keep a sharp focus on their job. Ministers are accountable to the Australian people and to Parliament.  They are responsible for setting the policy agenda and answerable to the public.The APS is the engine room and responsible for the delivery of unbiased and professional service to achieve the policy agenda.  

We say: It has always been this way but it never hurts to restate this important precept. Role clarity is important if executive government and the public sector are to collaborate positively to improve services and service experiences for all Australians. At ThinkPlace we have worked extensively on governance models as well as culture, leadership and organisational design with many of Australia’s public sector agencies. In order to work the right way, we understand it is important to first set up in the right way.


3. Implementation and Execution

The PM says: The APS should be an enabler, seeking opportunities rather than tripping on barriers. A key Government focus will be on ‘congestion busting’ to support a more prosperous Australia for business. The Government must regulate to balance individual and corporate freedoms for the good of the whole, but regulation must not get in the way of citizens going about their lives. Achieving this balance is how the APS will make a difference. APS leaders should ready themselves to support increasing ‘impact-fulness’ of their staff and work (a recent survey indicated that only a quarter of APS members felt their work had impact)

We say: Maximising impact is at the heart of everything we do. Our commitment to human-centred design and co-design means conducting the necessary research to create and implement the right thing, the first time. This approach saves the pain that can result when unintended consequences mean an intervention lacks efficacy, or worse, causes unforeseen harm to those it sets out to serve. Our process begins by gathering the right voices in the room and locking down strong intent. What is it that we want to deliver and what impact will it have? Our expertise in measurement and analysis means we build into our projects the means to gauge effectiveness and to determine if the project is delivering on that intent when it comes to impact. 


4. Look beyond the bubble

The PM says: The Prime Minister urged those who work on policy and implementation to guard against being led by the loudest voices and to prioritise recognising ‘ordinary people’. In his understanding this means those who get up go to work and come home again and don’t find themselves lobbying in Canberra to make their voices heard.

We say: Where appropriate, ThinkPlace and its staff can be a willing conduit between APS agencies and the broader Australian public. Our deep experience with digital and social ethnography and other human-centred research methods means we can help government push far beyond Canberra and far beyond ‘consultation’ to deliver insights that accurately and meaningfully reflect the experiences of everyday people, providing a firm platform to support targeted and effective policy and programs.

Whether it is talking to farm workers in rural New South Wales about safety or interviewing long-term jobseekers in Queensland about their experiences of the employment system our methods and mindsets deliver authenticengagement that brokers the voices of all.  


5. Perpetual Motion

The PM says: An agile and responsive APS embraces disruption, the Prime Minister says. This includes greater adoption and deployment of digital technologies but requires doing so in ways that do not place the efficiencies offered by technology above the rights and expectations of the Australian people. Prime Minister Morrison says an important way that this change can be handled effectively is via improving the occurrence and acceptance of experience swaps between APS staff and relevant private sector entities.  

We say: At ThinkPlace we understand that digital transformation is one of the greatest challenges facing public sector agencies worldwide. Our expertise lies in being a trusted ally who can help shepherd public sector leaders through this period of transformation, while also equipping them with the necessary skills and tools to adapt successfully. We believe strongly that as technology alters the “could we” part of policy and program delivery that strong ethical frameworks are required to make sure the “should we” part of the discussion keeps pace.

Collaborating with the Australian Public Service to build capacity around digital ethics, agile methods and design-led mindsets has been a clear focus of our work. In creating these curricula we bring to the table leading academic research as well as our own experience and that of the many private sector clients we work with. We have designed and run training in many of these areas for the Australian Public Sector Commission and also developed our own series of course that have delivered training such as Digital Ethics and Agile for Policy and Programs to officers across the APS.


6. Honour the Code

The PM says: The APS need to deliver professional governance services to their minister with integrity.  Ministers will be demanding and expect the APS to deliver.  

We say: Despite the obvious talents and good intentions of those across the APS, improved agility to respond to at-times demanding ministerial requests does not just happen. ThinkPlace has worked with many APS departments and agencies to redesign organisational structures, removing silos and building the scaffolding needed for supercharged collaboration. The combination of enhanced capability and new mindsets, coupled with more frictionless ways of working can be a powerful recipe for delivering on the Prime Minister’s request. When we work with APS departments we do so as trusted allies who understand the importance of delivering for the Minister and delivering for the Australian people.  




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