• Opinion
  • August 24, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 4

Hacking society’s problems: what we learned bringing techies to government

Opinion: Here's eight simple rules for making things with public servants

This opinion piece was written by Grace O’Hara. If you’re interested in becoming an opinion contributor, take a look at our opinion page


Earlier this year, we wrapped up our Code for Victoria II — Women in Tech program: an initiative supported by the Public Sector Innovation Fund and Victoria’s Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPC) that saw nine talented designers and developers embedded in three government agencies over six months. That’s a lot to take in. If you need more context — here’s something we wrote when we first kicked off.

Over the six months, our three teams of three worked tirelessly alongside their government hosts. Using design thinking and agile development practices, they broke down silos, and engaged staff and the general public in the process of creating new solutions to old problems.

It was the second time we ran the Code for Victoria initiative and the thirteenth time running the fellowship model in Australia. Each time, we’ve iterated on the previous version using feedback from the government hosts and fellows that have joined us — adding and scrapping experiments to the mix as we go.

Over the past two years — by testing our ideas, checking our assumptions and asking for feedback from people involved with Code for Victoria — we’ve slowly been piecing together the puzzle of “how to innovate with government”.

When the program came to an end, we wanted to get an outside perspective on it — to see the impact we’d had and the lessons that could be gleaned — and so we (and the Public Sector Innovation Fund) teamed up with the good people at Storyscape to help us. Here’s what we found to be the critical success factors.

Leaders who value, enable and reward innovation

When you’re trying something new and risky, within the confines of a risk-averse system, it can be slow going. Like, really slow. Leaders have the power to create a safe environment for experimentation, for setting the standard in open communication and for opening minds and doors to trying something new.

Teams focused on the problem

Human-centred design is a way of making things that places the end users (or humans) of whatever you’re making, at the centre of the design process. Makes sense right? But, because you’re constantly checking in with your users, pivoting to meet their needs and leading by their direction, it can be hard to see very far down the development path. You might have a broad idea of what a solution might look like, but you also have to be okay with getting something that looks completely different. This butts heads constantly with the planned development process that is typical inside governments.

We’ve found that teams that have a narrow view of a product or solution they want to end up with are less inclined to take on user feedback or change their original vision, making human-centred design a difficult methodology to follow. Instead, when teams see the learnings gathered as valuable outcomes, there is generally more fluidity and room for movement in the design process.

Mindsets matter

It’s uncomfortable being uncomfortable — few people enjoy it. Yet, we’ve found that there are certain lenses you can apply to change the flavour of discomfort to something more palatable.

When finding the right team to work on innovation projects, the evaluation found the following mindsets important to have (inspired by NESTA’s Competency Framework):

  • Action-Oriented: bias towards action and learning by doing
  • Curious: the desire to explore multiple possibilities
  • Courageous: willing to take risks
  • Outcomes Focused: strong commitment to real-world effects
  • Imaginative: an openness to exploring and envisioning new possible futures
  • Resilient: the perseverance to deal with resistance
  • Agile: able to respond to changing environments with flexibility

Employees who are empowered to share learnings

Like having your journal read aloud or a personal exchange being broadcast, it can be uncomfortable putting un-finessed work into the world. But there’s immense value in seeing thought patterns and experiments, in seeing reasoning and what might go wrong. Transparency makes it easy for others to understand and learn from your decision-making, while even more crucially, creates opportunities for others to participate and contribute to your work.

Engage early with diverse suppliers 

The beauty of innovation is that there is no one way of doing things, and no one organisation that does it. Instead it’s an ecosystem of ideas, research, learning and practitioners.

When government opens its doors to new and diverse suppliers, it brings in new experience, networks and knowledge. And equally, when government open its doors to other departments and agencies, it reveals shared frustrations and learnings. By establishing a wide range of partnerships early in projects, innovators avoid reinventing the wheel and running into hurdles that are well known in other circles.

Take sufficient time to research and understand the problem and end users

When making things for a wide range of people, most of who probably have different lived experiences to your own, there’s going to be a lot of unknowns. There’s also going to be a lot of things you think you know, but don’t really know. Research — LOTS of research — is the answer.

Partnerships last longer when private sector organisations maintain focus on the public benefit

When we start each Fellowship, the amazing Lina Patel runs a signature kick off workshop with each team helping, Code for Australia (the organisation), the department (as an organisation) and the individuals in the room find a shared understanding of what it is we’re all trying to achieve. Keeping this shared mission and understanding front of mind, helps the decision making process and prioritisation easier in the long run, for everyone.

Being a change-maker from the outside requires patience and resourcefulness

Working alongside government as partners, and outsiders, is tough work. Sometimes we face animosity, sometimes we face silence — for the most part, it’s usually fear that underpins it all. As an organisation trying to improve civil society, the issue of trust between people and their governments is one that is going to take more than just us, and more than a lifetime of effort. For us at Code for Australia, it’s the reason we get out of bed everyday. We believe that enabling people to actively participate in improving bureaucracy and service delivery, is the most productive way to build sustainable change in the public sector.

And so, we’re relentless. Miraculously the people that join us on this mission are too. To all our friends working to make government better, from the inside and out, hang in there and here’s to many more adventures and achievements to come. — Grace O’Hara

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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