Author: Sarah Hurcombe

Commissioning is about humans, their hopes and dreams and the way they view the world. 

Don’t believe me? Well, humour me and let me explain a little of what I mean by this statement.

Humans are everywhere when you start to look

The way the NSW Policy and Practice guide describes Commissioning is:

“An approach to considering the outcomes that need to be achieved, and designing, implementing and managing a system to deliver these outcomes in the most effective way. It leverages the strengths of the public sector and where appropriate, involves private and non-government organisations and individuals to transform outcomes for customers”

Nothing particularly human jumps out in that paragraph right? However, by thinking or talking about a ‘system’, an ‘organisation’, a ‘service’, a ‘process’, a ‘contract’ or an ‘outcome’ we’re actually thinking and talking about people. We’re either talking about:

  • the way people individually and in groups do things, connect, work as a whole and view the world (systems);
  • a group of people working together with a particular purpose (organisations); 
  • people helping other people achieve an outcome (services); 
  • people doing a series of actions, often with other people, to achieve something (processes); 
  • people making a binding agreement to do something or not do something (contract); or
  • the things in people’s lives that matter to them (outcomes). 

Systems, services, contracts and outcome frameworks are the manifestations of the ambitions, visions and desires of the people involved in designing those things. Once out in the world they are also given life by the interpretations that people give to them when navigating them, applying them, implementing them or measuring them. 

Our language, experiences and the way we view the world (our mental models) influence these interpretations and how we apply them in practice. Once you consider this it’s not a far stretch to see that commissioning is about humans, their hopes and dreams and the way they view the world. 

How are we thinking about the humans in commissioning?

Given this – how then do we as policy and decision makers in government get better at focusing on the humans working in and/or affected by the things we design, implement or seek to influence? 

One way we’ve been working to do this here at Commissioning NSW over the last 12 months has been to test in practice how human centred design (HCD) can help place people at the heart of complex human service systems and commissioning processes and departments such as our own. 

Human centred design is an approach that focuses on better understanding people’s experiences, needs and goals (individually and collectively) and considering the system or service ‘problem’ worth focusing on before jumping to solutions. We use the UK Design Council’s Double Diamond framework as a way to guide our work, using the four key stages as defined by the Design Council:

  • Discover: The first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume, what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.
  • Define: The insight gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.
  • Develop: The second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.  
  • Deliver: Delivery involves testing out different solutions at small-scale, rejecting those that will not work and improving the ones that will.

For us, good human centred design includes ethical research with people, divergent and convergent thinking, iteration, prototyping, testing our assumptions and actively involving people who will be affected by decisions across the system. 

Amongst other practices we’re also inspired by systems thinking work from people like Donella Meadows with her articulation of different places to intervene in systems including mindsets and David Snowden’s Cynefin framework with its concepts of complexity versus complicated problems and what this means for decision makers like us and our peers. 

We have three hypotheses we are testing

Drawing on these we have three hypotheses that we’ve been testing through our work in partnership with agencies in the last 12 months, namely that human centred design and systems thinking can help us in NSW to:

  • Better understand the needs of people interacting with (or avoiding) services focused on complex social issues, so that we can better identify the outcomes that matter to people (not just us in government) and then design, prototype and spread the practices, services and products to contribute to those outcomes;
  • Better understand the needs and experiences of those involved in the practice of commissioning (from within government and outside) of complex human services, so that we can better design how we ‘do’ commissioning itself as a process; and
  • Better understand the systems we operate in, so that we can seek to influence the future system that we want – this includes re-imagining organisations, information flows, ways of funding, incentives and mental models driving the system.

We’d love your thoughts on the above too so feel free to let us know what you think about our hypothesis – are there other things we should be testing in our work? Or things you would like us to test together?

What have we been learning?

In our first 12 months my team and I have partnered with colleagues to apply human centred design to issues as diverse as homelessness, child and family support services and private rental housing, procurement and contract management, community support services for victims of crime and our own internal ways of working and practices here at NSW Treasury. We’ve learnt a lot in this time already about the challenges and value of applying human centred design in these contexts. 

In a future blog we’ll will be sharing in greater depth our learnings, alongside our agency partners. In short summary - using human centred design in complex social policy spaces is hard work and we have been lucky to partner with brave and enthusiastic teams of colleagues in other government agencies and Treasury who have been willing to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty with us, bring colleagues along and try something new.  

The value of human centred design has been clear. At a service level, colleagues have designed, tested and are now moving to implement services or processes which have been designed with the people who will use them – rather than implementing services that people don’t need or want or which will only result in people cycling in and out of services.

For us, our colleagues and partners, human centred design mindsets, skills and tools have helped to re-examine our concept of what it is to be a public servant and to value the benefits of listening to and learning from people with lived experience, iterating our ideas, working more in the open, acting as facilitators and using co-creation methods. I’ve seen people become much more empowered in their work because of the human centred design journey they’ve been on. 

Again, I guess it comes back to my opening statement. Commissioning and the work of government is about humans - their hopes and dreams and new and old ways of viewing the world and its possibilities.  

Where to find more information on human centred design?

There is a wealth of information available on human centred design publicly and Commissioning NSW have pulled some of our favourite ones together here.

If you’d like to talk to me or one of the team then please drop us a line at [email protected]

You can also sign up to our Community of Practice here where we share a range of events on topics like these and others relevant to Commissioning including systems and market stewardship.