Originally published in May, 2016.
A Field Guide about Strategic Design inside Government: 9 Lessons from the Frontier
Let me be the first to welcome you to the public service! Now that you’ve taken your official oath, I can brief you on some important details for your new assignment as a [select: design-strategist; design-researcher; service designer; systemic designer; strategic designer]. Designing inside government promises to be a challenging, emotionally exhausting but rewarding career. Government is a rare beast because its existence centres on managing society’s shared and complex problems — income inequality, radicalization, housing scarcity, food security, climate adaptation, indigenous health — yep, those are among our issues. Sure we work with the public, civil society and others impacted, but as we say in healthcare: when a bed pan falls to the floor in Saskatoon, the Minister’s ears ring in Regina, or wherever ministers congregate. Accountability begins and ends with us. Or in your case, it begins with a coloured folder marked “Urgent — Action Request”. As a guide for designers considering a career inside government, I’ll share my experiences in leading complicated and complex design projects as a public servant inside the Ministry. I think that you’ll find some great resources about design in, for, or with government, but this short field guide is about the difficult practice of being embedded within a hierarchical institution, applying designerly and systemic approaches to collective problems.
A field guide provides practical guidance in an uncertain and unpredictable landscape. It offers ideas and advice that, if applied to similar situations, might achieve similar results. Design is a craft. As with any craft, the quality of result is correlated to the quality of execution. Therefore, I provide a few lessons and frameworks that you may adapt to your unique landscape.
My landscape: Four years ago, the Government of Alberta, starting in the Energy department, initiated an experiment – we would hire and train in-house designers to work on Alberta’s shared problems. Initial assignments were: improve planning and coordination of the province’s natural resources management system, better manage the risks and conditions around oil market access, reframe energy literacy and energy efficiency, and speculate on the future of energy. Incidentally, some of these projects (and others) are documented in the peer reviewed FORMakademsik. In 2013, we received funding and launched the Alberta CoLAB — a collaborative, co-design and co-creative space, process and team. CoLAB was mandated to work on projects across government, with a focus on building capacity among the wider public service. Keren Perla and Alex Ryan currently lead this enterprising and participatory adventure. In 2014, I was promoted to work out of “the centre” of government, in the Executive Council, to lead priority strategic design projects. My superiors were very interested in how design could help advance the government’s agenda. I was interested in reframing and redesigning how government problem solves. I worked with a government-wide scope, interacting with every ministry, reviewing work and providing advice to the Premier (our head of government) with the bulk of my efforts involved in the design of new legislation and the province’s climate change strategy. It was an incredibly rich and formative experience — I lost most naivety and idealism that I had about design within government. I was challenged on every assignment by Denise Perret, a design champion (and respected provincial lawyer) who single handedly redrafted the field guide by challenging every step. I pushed my own craft and practice farther than, I think, the current discourse. I also had the opportunity to work with the best: Oksana Niedzielski, Ksenia Benifand, Janice Ngeno, Heather Laird, Jess McMullin, Ben Weinlick, Keren Perla, Sandy Honour, Alex Ryan, and others. This is what I learned.
Lesson 1: You can’t redesign everything at once!
Many back-end government processes are not digital by default, user friendly, or designed around the needs of users. Data-sets may be disintegrated or analog and for practical purposes not accessible. Databases may be stored in filing cabinets and require hours of labour to perform a basic query. Many activities require multiple paper forms with sign-offs from three levels of oversight. These are the most egregious examples.
You need to be prepared to work within this system to achieve results. You need to be disciplined and focused on the problems that you are working on. And you need to shape this landscape to your advantage.
I recently worked on a project where the data was a mess, unclear and lacked useful meta data. No one holistically understood the problem or context. So we used an off-the-shelf information product to tell us what the strong evidence was saying. The design unit ended up having the best information. We then interpreted the results to decision-makers. Our credibility within and outside the organization increased and we gained sustained funding to expand the application to other data. It turned out that the data people had previously flagged a problem, but no one cared to listen. We used our “priority” or “strategic” project to create urgency and a need. We now have loyal allies who are keen to work with us on future projects.
Lesson 2: Plan for Collaboration, Prepare for Conflict
Millennials are well know for their strong aptitudes in cooperation and sharing. In design school we are trained in the art of collaboration. Collaboration is highly effective in a very narrow and particular set of circumstances — chiefly, where there is some trust, credibility or legitimacy. But what do you do when those you are facilitating passionately disagree or even despise each other? I have seen freshly minted designers facilitate a co-design session where participants leave in verbal brawls over matters of critical disagreement. Collaboration or consensus is not always possible. Sometimes cooperation or simply “less conflict” is success.
You need to be prepared to side step or walk towards conflicts, if it helps your work. Engaging with conflict can be helpful if it uncovers critical uncertainties, design parameters, aids sense-making or co-opts enemies into allies over the medium term. So don’t be appalled or uncomfortable when conflicts over very important and material issues erupt. I often engage conflicts directly by simply asking about the nature and disposition of the conflict. Conflicts can show the varied needs of different groups of users.
And don’t assume conflict reflects poorly on you or your process. The best insights often come from competing points of view.
Well before starting any collaborative process, I will assess the landscape for conflicts, disagreement and uncertainty. Depending on the degree of conflict and receptivity to innovation, I will organize a process that specifically attempts to manage the group to a more constructive and hopeful space.
For example, using methods that generate empathy:
Keren has a knack for generating a hopeful and constructive mindset among diverse and competing groups. She says that “getting dirty together is the quickest way to build trust”.
Lesson 3: Thinking and Doing are not separate
Design-thinking’s innovation is that non-conventional designers, like entrepreneurs, lawyers and engineers, can borrow the mindset and tools of design and apply this permutation to their context with novel and creative results. That innovation democratizes design to create many permutations and combinations of designers (see list at the beginning) of systems, environments, organizations and processes. The general approach: Designers situate themselves in a landscape or context, find problems, ideate functional solutions and build full scale versions — and in doing so there is no delineation between thinking and doing. Both activities occur at the same time. Other professions have a mindset that firewalls or silos those that use their brain and those that use their hands and separates those (cognitive) tasks. Certainly our kind of “big picture” design burns tonnes of brain calories, particularly because the general approach demands critical- and visual-thinking’s translational and interpretive skills.
A fundamental aspect of any complex or complicated design work is that one constantly oscillates between the conceptual and tangible. You must hone your craft by experimenting and situating methods to your landscape. You must take failures as opportunities to ideate new methods, as failure implies a need for innovation.
Lesson 4: Hybridize Processes, Methodologies and Methods
Other professions have different processes, methodologies and methods. This is a simple lesson: don’t assume that they are flawed. Upon entering government I was appalled at how some activities were being done. I saw no value. I decided to chart my own path. This was an understandable error. It is important to understand how complex institutions work before you redesign. By hybridizing existing approaches with novel solutions, the organization’s antibodies don’t destroy your idea. A big challenge that I encountered early on was adjusting the government’s design guidelines for our workspace. If we were to follow the template, our studio design would look like something on a Mad Men set, but less fabulous and manufactured by prisoners. I couldn’t blow up their prescriptive standard because of labour agreements, cost evaluations, supplier and builder contracts, so I opted for a hybrid. I worked with the interior designer to work with existing rules and the principles that they appreciate. For example a key goal of the project was to bring per square meter costs below the government average. This appeals to a public servant’s inherent austerity. This allowed for reasonable and justifiable variances in the standard.
For example, CoLAB’s design and construction hybridized the existing mindset and detailed design rules with our mindset and needs:
Put ideas in the language of the dominant culture, shape and adapt existing approaches and don’t unnecessarily alarm people with new ideas or terms. Build trojan horses that demonstrate the need for change and force open conversations about innovation. Once you have credibility, you will have the license and resources to be bolder.
Lesson 5: Use an Operational Approach
“Every day is a new day” — That’s been my experience working in government. I love my job and the people that I work with. But this environment is only for those who are persistent, disciplined, focused, self-motivated and inquisitive. Coming from a detailed design and big infrastructure background, I was astounded by the dynamic and constantly changing environment. Stakeholder disagreements and politics can adjust your well intentioned plans. Priorities are constantly evolving. People move on. Governments change and new parties come into power. When I was in the Military I was forced to practice what is called an operational approach — I say “forced” because we would spend weeks working through live scenarios, applying and adapting as the operational landscape constantly changed. An operational approach is basically the mindset that keeps you and your team focused and adaptable as the landscape changes. When I lead a project or a sprint, I clarify and articulate the 1) Situation: the current landscape, stakeholder relationships, knowns and unknowns; and I reiterate 2) the Mission: conditions for success and timelines. We then review and adapt or maintain our plans for Execution and how we will work on the design tasks. This is the basic structure of projects. We don’t plan out every step, we just keep options and ideas accessible and ready.
In the constantly changing sands of government, an operational approach keeps everyone focused on the mission (even if we challenge the mission as presented). This also cultivates shared understanding about the landscape, and adaptability as the assignment shifts.
Lesson 6: Facilitating to the Zone of Complexity
Most of you already appreciate the challenges of wicked problems. You recognize the need for empathy, shared sense-making, interactive and collaborative methods to make things better for future generations. In design school you are introduced to complexity from the desktop perspective – briefly engaging the messiness of a problem, examining the context, mapping stakeholders interactions, applying human centric research tools and visualizing and interacting with an appropriate audience. These are fine approaches. On entering the public service I appreciated, even admired, “complexity”, but what I under appreciated was the magnitude created when highly technical and complicated health or energy systems interact with a wide range of human experiences, conflicts and disagreements. As a public service designer, you will experience this force multiplier effect: complicated+complex, and you end up entering the zone of super complexity. Super complexity is the space just beyond complexity, but not yet chaotic, and still structured and organized. This space has the following properties: diverse and competing stakeholders with an exceptional depth of knowledge, emotionally charged human experiences, overlaid on a large geographic area, and interacting with current infrastructures and powerful interests. Powerful groups can benefit from a frozen or locked conflict, or simply do not see value in participating in any “co-” process, yet their knowledge and experience is required for redesign. I have found this to be the most arduous part of my job.
You must facilitate powerful interests into the zone of complexity by building trusted relationships with innovators and cultivating your conflict resolution aptitudes. Broadly this can be accomplished by doing what you say, being clear about what you can and can’t do, and using your team’s creative abilities to help them articulate constructive and hopeful futures.
In high disagreement landscapes, I prepare by meeting participants individually (or with my team) and perform a quick expert interview. With larger engagements, we will use surveys. I’m looking to identify contentious ideas and critically challenge for logical rigour. I will then work with my team to make sense of the results. This gives us an overview of the landscape and how we might shape or adapt it to our purposes. Where there is an intuitive or rational need for innovation and stakeholders agree on maintaining the status quo, this investigative approach often sparks critical thinking among stakeholders. When our organization or stakeholders are paralyzed by uncertainty or disruption, the design unit will create a false structure or process (a project or rationale), often not labelled as a design exercise, with the hope that an authentic structure or process will emerge naturally. This gives people confidence that their is a simple and clear path forward, even though we’re also flying by the seat of our pants.
The key point about successfully redesigning anything is that you need to manage your landscape: people, processes and resources into the zone of complexity, away from chaos and oversimplification and not become overwhelmed by the super complexity brought on by expertise.
Lesson 7: Build Credibility with Strong Logic
You really don’t know how little you know until you really know something! Before we start a big project, we learn what the strong logical evidence says —we connect with the best analysts, we ask questions, look really dumb, and summarize our findings both for ourselves and our executive supporters. In the process we’ve built great relationships with our analytics and data people. We respect their deep knowledge and analytic ability and they respect our translational and sense-making abilities. I can’t imagine starting a project any other way. In the process we identify unexplored pathways, existing assumptions, and new critical uncertainties. Often what is measured is valued, so this gives us an understanding of what might be opportunities to reframe or challenge the status quo. Moreover, as the leader of our design team, I need to be able to stand my own with technical (analytic) experts and our executives with credibility.
Lesson 8: Be an Interpreter in the Art of the Possible with Weaker Logic
My boss sometimes calls me into her office, and says: “I need you to work on something because we are not getting a complete picture with the traditional approach”. When she talks about the traditional approach, she’s referring to analytic reasoning — which for all it’s advantages in deconstructing the current context, it is poorly suited to helping my boss and the Ministry appreciate the range of possible options. Her request isn’t easy: she is asking us to apply synthesis to identify critical assumptions and design parameters so she can articulate what she refers to as “the art of the possible”. We might call that speculative design or foresight. The art of the possible applies abduction to identify weak logic, uncover new scenarios with revised logic, synthesize a full range of options and tell the story. The last part about the story is a genuine craft. Some people are better at translation and interpretation, typically a great deal of trans-disciplinary experience is required so you are fluent in the languages of other disciplines.
Articulating alternative futures and constructively challenging the narrow logic of the status quo demands that you cultivate your translation and interpretation abilities — including: visualization, modelling, sketching and story-telling.
A critical part of my job is to curate the art of the possible with our executive team and stakeholders, bridging new ideas with needs and potential impacts. I must be hopeful and constructive, while not advocating for particular futures or design options until we’ve applied an evaluative lens.
Lesson 9: Don’t Leave People Behind, Elevate Everyone
Leadership is about elevating everyone and sharing in success. I’m interested in design leadership and championship as a means to empower the public service to do better. Admirers of the design community will often elevate me as if I am the sole factor contributing to the success of a project. I am not a guru or star-designer, nor do I want to be. I know a lot and do my best to share that knowledge with everyone — my team, our colleagues and partners. So when we get things right (or wrong) and build a great solution, the team shares in this. This includes making presentations to the Deputy Minister or Minister and having full license to tell their story. To elevate everyone you must cultivate the skills, confidence and experiences of the team and work together on areas of weakness. You must also reach out beyond the team and elevate the wider community.
Jonathan Veale is a design executive based out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has held leadership roles with Calgary’s Civic Innovation YYC Lab and previously led an in-house team at Alberta’s Ministry of Health specializing in the emerging field of public sector strategic design. Before that, Jonathan co-founded the Alberta CoLAB at the Department of Energy and served as in-house design strategist and futurist for Alberta’s Executive Council. Jonathan founded NEW PATTERN, a people-centred, futuristic, design agency that experiments with new and emerging approaches to collective problem solving.
*Opinions and content here are my own.