Centre for Excellence - Inaugural Project

How might we dramatically improve businesses’ experience of government? And vice-versa! That is the question that we at the Australian Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design have been asking as we explore our first official project.


Recently I gave an overview of the projects that have been undertaken by similar innovation/design bodies around the world. There is a wide diversity of project areas, reflecting in part the huge range of opportunities that exist for using design and innovation to improve things, and also the variety of issues facing societies around the world.

At the first meeting of the Centre’s Board on 17 September, it discussed potential problem areas and issues facing the Australian Public Service as it works to achieve the priorities of the Government and meet citizen expectations. These areas/issues included:

  • Whole-of-government efficiencies and shared outcomes frameworks including matters such as internal and external ‘red tape’ and administrative burdens, procurement policies, and information sharing across the APS

  • Structural change and the role and expectations of government including understanding and addressing structural change in regional communities, managing change processes in service delivery, and addressing citizen expectations of what the public sector can deliver

  • Health, welfare and social services including service delivery reform, the challenges of an ageing population and entrenched social and health issues

  • Education, employment and migration including early childhood development, service design andAustralia in the Asian Century

  • Industry, technology, innovation and design including industry development matters and increasing understanding and application of design across the public service

  • Environment and sustainability including reframing drought policy and the design of national environmental legislation.


The areas/issues identified came from a wide range of discussions, including between our CEO, Jane Treadwell, and some Secretaries and Deputy Secretaries, and existing issues papers, environment scans and government reports. Some issues are relatively well understood and have been confronting governments and the public sector for some time and others are potential issues that have been identified as being on the horizon and that might be of significance.

The Centre’s Board decided that the first area that the Centre should investigate as part of its charter and formal project process, is the interaction between business and government.

This area has both a long history (with an established belief that it could be done better by the public service) and yet it is ever-changing (new issues arise as public sector services, service delivery approaches and processes change and evolve over time).

This is also an area that has been explored by a number of agencies. Public sector agencies routinely look at how they can improve their services and stakeholder relations - many have invested heavily in innovative technological solutions - and there are regular government commissioned inquiries or reports into how this can be done better (or at least how some discrete element can be done better). And, COAG has worked hard over the last few years to introduce significant regulatory reforms through the Seamless National Economy program of work.

This activity does not reduce the opportunity to look at the issue with a new approach. What (we hope) makes the Centre unique is its mandate to look at the issues in the ‘white space’ – that is, the matters where there are a number of agencies that share a problem, but where there is no outright ‘owner’ of the problem. In addition and importantly, the Centre will apply design thinking processes – most especially deep collaborative enquiry - and look to draw out insights that offer new avenues of exploration for transforming elements of business/government relationships.  To paraphrase MindLab’s CEO Christian Bason when he visitedCanberrafor a few hours last week, we need humility, the recognition that we build on the work of others, and patience in the search for breakthrough solutions or a third way that navigates a course through the standard oppositional choices.

In applying design thinking we want to ensure that the experiences of both ‘sides’ of the interaction are considered. There are usually good reasons for how current public sector processes have been developed. Now, as Dan Hill refers to it, we need to understand the ‘dark matter’ that lies behind what is now – the history and interaction of the different elements of the current systems. Without understanding the context, it is harder to design or redesign changes that will ‘stick’ or integrate with people’s way of doing things, or inspire them to try something new.

It is an exciting and interesting topic area and we in the Centre have been very busy working through possible options of how the project might proceed. In our next blog post on the project my colleague, Alex Roberts, will outline what we have done, some of the emerging insights and possible directions for exploration in the next stages.