8 lessons learnt from the ‘design as a democratic force’ event in Canberra

I’m currently on secondment to the Australian arm of Delib for a couple of months to help train our new Account Manager Mick. I normally work as an Account Manager in our Bristol office, so it’s great to be part of the Australian team for a short while! To round up my first week in Canberra, I spent Friday morning listening to four brilliant speakers as part of the Design Canberra festival session discussing the idea of ‘Design as a democratic force’. The session focused on two key themes: addressing the decline of trust in Australia’s democratic institutions and how user-centered design can help rebuild this trust. Here are my key take homes from the event:

1) Trust in government and democratic decisions in Australia is at its lowest level since 1996

Mark Evans from the University of Canberra presented findings from a survey that he’s been involved in about public trust in government and democratic decisions. Despite 25 years of economic growth in Australia, the survey found that trust is actually at its lowest levels since the early 1990s. Mark’s team conducted both a survey and 14 focus groups to help explore this topic which included examining how Australians imagine their democracy and what they want from politicians. They found that Australians wanted politicians to keep their promises and be honest and empathetic.

2) Let’s not forget Maslow’s hierarchy of needs when it comes to democratic decisions

Damien from the Department of Human Services Design Hub spoke about the experiences of the Department of Human Services when it comes to political decisions. He advocated exploring what citizens are ‘aspiring towards’ rather than asking them what they ‘want’ right now. If citizens don’t have their basic needs met, then they don’t have the head space to start thinking about the next level up in terms of political participation and decisions.

3) Young Australians are participating in politics more than ever before

Mark Evan’s research also found that the ‘baby boomers’ generation are the most disillusioned about politics; but there is a strong interest and knowledge in politics amongst young Australians. Although this participation isn’t always traceable by ‘traditional’ means, it’s definitely prevalent.

4) The future is in efficient citizen-centric digital services

During the event breakout sessions, Australian civil servants described how their roles have been traditionally blocked or hampered by the need to move off ‘X old system’ or towards purchasing ‘Y tool’ which will help speed up service delivery. Meanwhile citizens are already moving full steam ahead and using digital services natively. Citizen expectation is growing when it comes to digital tools and services.

During the event Mark Evans from Canberra University said “Our research shows that Australians are enamoured with digital services: especially those which have been co-designed”

5) Social sciences are increasing in importance and helping to drive human-focused services forward

There is a resurgence in the importance of social sciences in political decision making. No longer are decisions made simply by economists or based on numbers. Instead, social sciences and human-centred research methods such as working directly with and observing citizens in situ are becoming increasingly important.

6) Co-design is a powerful strategy in helping leaders to get ‘ahead of the curve’

Over the past decade, governments around Australia have become increasingly open to experimentation, and have matured their design capability. Co-design helps solve problems beyond the realm of politicians. However, we need to be mindful not to almost become too user-centric in this approach and leave out the political leaders who have the power to push these changes forward. We should never underestimate the importance of strong leadership in government.

“It’s great to have co-design. But sometimes the overall decisions need to be made by a really strong leader,” stated Nina Terry, Think Place Global.

7) Ideas need to originate from Citizens

The Department of Human Services talked about how an idea is sometimes ‘handed down’ rather than suggested from the ‘bottom up’ by citizens. This can mean that instead of working with a problem which has been organically suggested, you end up building on an existing idea which can increase the chances of the idea going wrong further down the line.

“The challenge we’re having at the Department of Human Services is that we’re working with ideas that have already been suggested and handed down to be worked through. We need to step back and gather ideas from citizens first” Damien Tobin, The Department of Human Services.

8) Government needs to become an enabler rather than a ‘top down’ force

One of the themes discussed towards the end of the session was about whether the type of democracy as we know it today is still valid for Australia in the 21st century. Related to this, is the question of re-positioning government to work more directly for its citizens.

Despite the disillusioned sentiments towards politics, it’s clear that with the right leadership and tools there is an opportunity to effectively connect citizens with decision making on a level which works for both government departments and citizens. As one of the participants in my break-out session pointed out: “Maybe we don’t want everyone to trust government and we do want to keep some tension in that space”.

Massive thanks to the Design Canberra Festival, Think Place and the Department of Human Services Design Hub for hosting such a thought-provoking session.