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With experience from the World Bank to the Obama White House, Mathan Ratinam has advocated for Human-centred Design all over the world. We talked to him about what HCD looks like in the Victorian Government, and how his team is helping public servants upskill in the practice.

Mathan Ratinam has worked as a design professional and educator for more than 20 years, endeavouring to ‘take design where it isn’t.’ Prior to joining the Department of Premier and Cabinet’s Digital, Design and Innovation branch as their Lead Service Designer, Mathan was the inaugural Managing Director of CivVic Labs at LaunchVic.

Before that, he worked in New York as the Lead Design Specialist in the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Unit at the World Bank. He has been engaged as a strategic designer by the White House during the Obama Administration, various UN agencies, the US Department of Defense, international NGOs, and has served as an advisor to the Australian Government’s Dept of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

As an educator, he has taught at Columbia University and Parsons School of Design in New York. He also holds a PhD in Architecture from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Australia.

We sat down to chat with Mathan about Human-centred Design in government, and the HCD playbook his team released.

Tell us a little bit about your team.

Mathan: Our team, the Service Design team, sits within the Department of Premier and Cabinet, in a branch called Digital, Design and Innovation.

It’s one of several teams in our branch where we look at the needs of citizens, and try to relay to decision makers how they can make more informed decisions around the products, policies, programmes, and services that are delivered to citizens.

“If you base a solution on your assumptions alone, you’re working with a limited set of past experiences, and a particular kind of reading of the situation. But that’s often not enough.”

What are some of the key perceived barriers to utilising HCD for public servants?

Certainly the most common one is the risk aversion. We try and deal with that head on and say, ‘Actually, design is a process — and part of that process is to de-risk ideas.’ If you base a solution on your assumptions alone, you’re working with a limited set of past experiences and a particular kind of reading of the situation. But that’s often not enough. If you base it on false assumptions, that’s particularly dangerous. And it’s even more dangerous in the public sector, because there are people whose lives very much depend on the service delivery. They don’t have a choice of three different options in the market that they can go to. The services governments provide can often be the only option that citizens are entirely dependent on.

Diagram from the HCD Playbook

So there are clear risks in getting it wrong.

Yes, and it’s also incredibly hard to win back people once they’ve been burnt. So the stakes are really high, which is probably what fuels the risk aversion in one way. But it’s also the reason why it’s necessary to have an approach that accounts for that risk, and looks at how to de-risk the work to deliver something that allows you to move the needle further forward.

Why is HCD being talked about now?

I always say that all design is redesign. It’s not like these problems never existed before, they largely have. What happened was we developed something at a time, that was probably the best approach available to roll out as a solution. But at some point, it started to diminish in terms of its impact, value or efficiency. Now we need to consider new options as we see the consequences of a previous solution and we’re trying to redress this. It’s about trying to find a better solution that’s more contemporary for the contemporary need.

Image from the HCD Playbook

Talk to us a bit about tailoring it for the public sector.

There isn’t really a government in the world that is able to keep pace with the digital literacy of the citizens they serve because technology is largely born out of the private sector, shaped in terms of usage by citizens and then adopted or reappropriated by government.

Public servants are quite hungry and eager to think about new and better way of doing things: how do we generate better value for money in terms of taxpayer dollars? How do we ensure we’re more connected with citizens? How are we making sure we’re actually understanding their true needs to begin with?

The other barrier is when you’re in the private sector, it’s often pretty straightforward. The relationship is with your customers, and if you’re creating the product or service, then you have the customer who pays for it. And that’s a straightforward exchange of supply and demand. But in the public purpose sector, the relationship between the creator of the service and the end user is more complex. There are more entities involved than just ‘provider’ and ‘consumer’.

“There are these very unique attributes to the work that public servants do. That meant that there would need to be a much more bespoke way of thinking about a design-led approach to undertaking that work.”

The reason for this is that the person who’s receiving the service is not the person paying for the service. So what you’ll have is someone in the middle as an intermediary who’s delivering the service, but they’ll have a funder and executive on one side, and then the beneficiary on the other, which is the citizen.

I often ask a group of public servants ‘Who is the customer here? The citizen or the executive?’ Most people would say the citizen. But in straightforward business terms, it’s the executive because they are paying for it. They’re setting the scope and outcome, which aligns with the policy direction they want to take and say ‘We need to deliver this outcome.’ So then that’s your parameters to work within whilst delivering the greatest benefit to the citizen or community.

When you see it that way, you realise you’re working a double-sided market where you’re in this sort of figure eight loop that you’re going back and forth, starting with what an executive says and then going out and testing those assumption and really finding out if that’s true with community members. Then you come back and synthesise the work and report back up and often times you realise the problem was actually something different to what was originally conceived. Ultimately, you need that evidence base. Then you can go out and test ideas and interventions, as many times as necessary to really understand how far you can move the needle towards the change that you’re trying to see.

Image from the HCD Playbook

Tell us about the HCD Playbook your team put out.

We knew that there were a lot of playbooks out there in the world, and they were freely available, really high level and agnostic, and they just weren’t answering the concerns or the needs of public servants. We’re working in a different context — the stakes are high as we’re often talking about populations that are vulnerable. There are these very unique attributes to the work of public servants and we needed a more bespoke way of delivering design-led work.

So we did our research. The public sector in Victoria is around 310,000 people — it accounts for one out of 11 jobs and wanted to develop something that would reach all of them. So our thinking was, if we really want to make a change and promote a design-led practice, we’re going to have to provide the resources necessary.

We took a tiered approach to it, where we do three things in the service design team — get resources to as many people as possible, provide advice on projects, and partner with them to execute complex projects.

It’s like a pyramid, and at the base of the pyramid we try to reach a broadest range of people and teams to deliver an uplift in capability within the public service. So that included the playbook where we create it once and distribute it thousands of times and so as to cast a very wide net and reach as many public servants as possible. It’s a low touch and high-volume solution and we’ll try to customise it as much as possible to public servants and the needs that they have.

We also know that there’s a lot of design tools and frameworks out there, but people just weren’t sure how to assemble them into some kind of structure and plan. When people often start on a project, they know what timeframe they have, and their budget, but are still curious about how to define the problem, or how to determine the best solution. So we knew we were going to need to put design plans in place which is a key element of the playbook.

When speaking with public servants we found they largely want to do one of three things, which is they want to better understand citizen or community needs externally, develop strategic recommendations or policies internally, and the third is to prototype and test different ideas. It was our job to provide a starting point and plan of how to operationalise these because what people needed was a very practical guide.

“I want public sector workers to be encouraged to do all sorts of things, not just human centred design, but do systems thinking and a whole bunch of other kinds of practices that are out there that could improve their ways of working.”

And the training?

Yes, after the Playbook the next step was create trainings based on the content and they’re going really well. We’ve had around 200 people in the VPS come through from over 55 government entities in the last 6 months and the feedback has been highly positive.

The HCD Playbook

Can you talk to us about other ways you’re helping public servants?

A number of people will come through the training and say, actually, we’ve got a project we’re about to start on, can you give us some advice? That’s the second tier of work that we do — it’s more advisory. We put a design lens over their work and act as a critical friend or design coach.

Finally, there’s a smaller portion that go further who want to partner on a project. They don’t need a design coach, what they want is an executing partner so we work with them to deliver their project. This is where we’re seeing the biggest demand, which is why our team is growing.

Finally, what’s the one thing that you want every public servant to know about Human-centred Design?

I’d really hope that Human-centred Design could be the gateway for them, where they realise ‘This is really great. I went beyond technical expertise into a new area of work and was surprised by what it revealed.’ I want public sector workers to be encouraged to do all sorts of things, not just Human-centred Design, but systems thinking, futuring and a whole bunch of other practices that are out there that could improve their ways of working. We’d love to see a whole bunch of new activities normalised within government that haven’t yet been part of the public service.

Head here to download your copy of the Human Centred Design Playbook and find out more information on how to get in touch with Mathan’s team about training, their advisory service, or help executing your project.

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