Our conversation with Pia Andrews: How empathy and design thinking are integral to digital transformation

In her role as Executive Director for Digital Government for the NSW Government in Australia, Pia Andrews works with technologists and public servants alike to enable greater transparency and citizen-centric design in the public sector and beyond.

Prior to her sessions at FWD50 2018, we spoke with Pia about how she is using technology and empathy to develop systems and services that improve citizens’ quality of life.

What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?

That’s a really cool question to start with. I work for the NSW Government’s Chief Information & Digital Officer in Australia. My branch is responsible for five teams, each focused on a key aspect to support and lead digital transformation:

  1. Policy Lab: Our policy team, which is focused on modernising our policy practice.
  2. The DNA (digital.NSW Accelerator): Our accelerator and service innovation lab.
  3. Data Policy and Practice: Looks at applying data for evidence driven policy.
  4. Innovation (Partnerships and Pipeline): Coordinates and engages with cross sector partners in innovation and digital transformation.
  5. Digital Transformation — Develops and maintains the NSW Gov Digital Design System to support greater digital transformation across government.

We’re transforming the digital government policy agenda and team into a Policy Lab. This is bringing a more agile, disciplinary and iterative approach to the way we design policy.

We recently finished our first Policy Lab sprint. It was focused on developing a cohesive approach and overarching principles for the government’s data landscape. We want to be better at not only releasing and sharing data for public use, but also transforming government into being more data driven.

How will these efforts contribute to improving services for citizens?

We have a project called life journey mapping. If you take a person and map their whole journey, where is the government coming into play? People usually start well outside government. They start with their trusted GP, their NGO, their family or their friends.

If you can map a generic pattern journey, let’s reinvent that journey. Let’s look at what coming into that could look like. By designing with people, you can identify not just opportunities for the steps in that journey, but refine them to deliver better-integrated services along the way. Then we can reduce the overall number of steps and work out which government services would be best automated.

Will this change the way public servants approach their work?

Public servants have been told for 20 to 30 years in a lot of our jurisdictions to act more like a business. That dehumanized government a little bit. Even the notion of calling a citizen a customer can feel a bit distant, but at the same time introducing a service culture has dramatically improved government services across the world.

A lot of the business of government started to move away from public values management. One of the really brilliant things that service design has brought back to the fore is that public servants want to engage, support and do public good. Service design gives us a toolset to reintroduce and re-systematize empathy.

How do you elicit empathy in systems that are traditionally seen as bureaucratic?

Humans are naturally empathetic. But in most institutions, the incentive systems are not driven by empathy. Incentive systems, particularly in a lot of government systems at the moment, are driven by cost-cutting, productivity gains, meeting the Minister’s requirements, meeting the mandates and agenda of the agency, etc.

Public services are mechanisms for social security, for social safety, for social stability, and for social good. The reason I came to work in the public sector is I really wanted to understand the system as a whole. I came to work in the public service because it is one of the only and most strongly systemically motivated institutions for public good. When we get it right, everyone benefits.

When I saw behaviours that at times countered that systemic motivation for public good, I started to look at why. I realized that when a person in an agency is asked to build a five-year business case, it is entirely judged on its economic merits. I started to ask: why are public services asking questions that inherently put money over people?

How can we swing things back in a more human-focused direction?

A lot of people want to do the right thing, but are taught systems, approaches, and processes that are effectively about putting money over people. When you actually take public servants through service design and design thinking, the results are very different.

When you ask public servants to interview someone, to ask them about their experience, something magical happens and people reconnect with their clients. If the end user is way down the supply chain, it’s much harder to have empathy for that person. If you don’t have an understanding of how what you’re doing will affect them, it doesn’t necessarily drive the intended outcome.

Can you share an example of this process?

I’ll give you an example from Indigenous communities from when I was doing some work in New Zealand. The relationship through Te Tiriti o Waitangi/Treaty of Waitangi between Māori and the government is more established than what we have in Australia

At the housing commission we were looking at challenges around tenancy. One of the concepts raised was the Māori concept of kāinga. Tiopira Piripi of Te Rārawa, Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kuri descent who is New Zealand’s Senior Advisor in the Service Innovation Team at the Department of Internal Affairs, describes kāinga as one’s hearthfire or home fire.

Wherever your hearthfire lives is the place where you have rights and responsibilities. You may be away for 20 years, but when you walk in the door of your ancestral home, you have rights to be there. You also have responsibilities to that place and to the people there.

In a fourth- or fifth-generation rental tenancy, where is your home fire and what are your rights? What if you want to have your loved one, who has just died, be at your home so that you can stand with them or sit with them for the period of mourning? Then your landlord says no. Their rights trump your rights.

You start to see where people get disconnected from a place of rights and responsibilities. He cited this amazing phrase: “The child who is not embraced by the kāinga will burn the kāinga down to feel it’s warmth.” It’s powerful stuff.

[Original source: Piripi, T. (2018). Kainga and Renting a Property. Retrieved from https://www.digital.govt.nz/blog/kainga-and-renting-a-property/]

Is there something else that you’d like to add?

We need to start collaboratively building the best future we can that takes advantage of all these new technologies to design a quality of life that is great for everybody. If we design that together, then we can start walking towards that path. If we don’t know what we’re heading toward, then we’re going to be stumbling in the dark and reacting to change.

FWD50 returns November 2019 in Ottawa, Canada.