The Centre for Excellence

Last month, Informant columnist J. R. Nethercote wrote an impassioned critique of the new Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design. He decried design and innovation as ''nothing new'' and suggested the centre merely opened up the Australian Public Service to faddish behaviour. Though we agree with Nethercote to some degree, as principles of a consultancy that designs public sector services, we must call his seemingly dismissive view to account and, in our own way, make the case for the centre.

Nethercote's main complaints seem to be that the language of innovation is flowery and the focus on ''outcomes through innovation'' merely restates long-held public sector aims, albeit with a new vocabulary.

We agree that the language of design can seem obtuse. However, behind the words is a genuine attempt to define innovation in terms of efficiency and/or new ways to solve problems in an increasingly complex world; a world in which we can't always get it right the first time we try.

Of course, all policy, and the public sector services that deliver on them, should be designed in a way that seeks to generate efficient and effective outcomes. As designers, our language is intended to highlight that this should be done by engaging and collaborating with the people involved in those services; and that prototyping and iteration ensures that we progress towards better outcomes.

The real point about language, which Nethercote misses, is that it shouldn't distract from the effort. In our experience, government agencies can become obsessed with differentiating design from other disciplines such as change management or IT design. While this is necessary to define what is different about design, it shouldn't distract from actually designing.

Our own experience with public sector design started in the Taxation Office over a decade ago. In 2000, the then second commissioner, Alan Preston, somehow convinced the tax commissioner to fund the establishment of the integrated tax design project.

The project had two broad aims: integrating policy and administrative design (by supporting collaboration between the Treasury, Tax Office and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel); and building a design capability in the Tax Office to ensure the taxpayer (or user) was represented in the design of administrative systems. World leaders in design were engaged to help inspire and build a methodology and approach. Homage was paid to the two leading schools (in the opinion of the project) - Carnegie Mellon and the Chicago Institute of Design - by drawing on their teaching and research.

A concentrated design effort began with the development of design ''blueprints'' across the Tax Office business, representing everything from new budget measures such as consolidations and superannuation right through to internal business design such as the Tax Office's channel strategy.

Like all new ideas, there were those who said design in the Tax Office was a fad or that the agency already had a ''user-based'' approach. In hindsight, even the most ardent fan of the Tax Office's approach would have to admit that the language of design and the obsession with methodology over practice could have been handled better.

However, 13 years later, it cannot be disputed that the focus on design has had real and tangible effects for users, taxpayers and staff; from design of key Tax Office products through to the ongoing collaboration with key intermediaries, such as tax agents, in the design of the tax system.

Drawing on the Australian experience, New Zealand's Inland Revenue agency established a service design capability in 2004 that continues to influence not only taxpayer and social policy customer experiences, but all citizens through Inland Revenue's whole-of-government influence.

Similar design approaches continue to be applied in areas such as Australia's Customs service, the Department of Human Services (pre and post-integration of its agencies), and at a state level with Victoria's Department of Business and Innovation.

The approaches to public sector design in these agencies and others varies, and the outcomes are mixed. No one would argue that they had perfected design, and we would argue there are plenty of reasons why the effort should continue. This is precisely why we need a centre of excellence to guide and shape future efforts at a whole-of-government level.

The focus of the design effort raises another issue for Nethercote: the fact that the centre for excellence will be in Canberra. The beauty of design is that it is concerned with people in action. That means the activities that take place within a design project compel departments to engage with and understand the world at a broader level.

When Medicare Australia sought to understand how chronic disease management plans were actually used, before implementing a compliance regime, we were part of a team that sat in doctors' practices in Melbourne, Bendigo and Sebastapol. Good design starts in the field and returns to the field regularly. The centre's location in Canberra is a red herring.

Though we believe the centre is important, we also think, from our decades of experience in making design work in the public sector, there are lessons that have already been learned that should be heeded by the team at the Industry Department, which is leading the centre trial.

First, methodology is not the most important factor in design. It is important, but the centre will also need to get in and do stuff early. If it truly aims to be a centre of excellence, it must recognise methodology as an enabler to design practice, and not fixate on it alone.

Second, the centre should ensure that there are tangible measures that demonstrate the design effort and the difference it makes for the community. This means the centre must do more than merely assure that an approach is ''best practice''.

Finally, it should draw on the existing design community and networks within Australasia. From what we've seen so far, there seems to be a concerted effort to do just this.

The design community is rightly excited about the emergence of ''citizen-centric'' design in the APS and the centre as a place of excellence for that design. We don't share the pessimism of those who think this is a ''fad''. We look forward to it evolving to support design, in a bid to make a difference to all of those who engage directly or indirectly with government policy and administration.

Justin Barrie and Mel Edwards are the principals of Design Managers Australia, a service design consultancy based in Canberra.

designmanagers.com.au or follow @DMA-Canberra on Twitter

Editor's note: The authors have no professional links with the Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design.