Case Study: A systemic design approach to embedding systemic design in the Australian Taxation Office


Misha Kaur

A case study playing with tensions

Complex challenges do not lend themselves to simplification. Such problems are those that researchers and practitioners alike broadly agree that the public sector is increasingly tasked with dealing. Further, complex problems are situated in an increasingly uncertain, volatile and unpredictable global context and policymaking environment. Many authors have warned that the established practices in government are not sufficient to deal with such problems. The integration of systems thinking in design practice has been advocated as a promising approach to understand and more effectively deal with the increasing complexity of societal challenges. However, little has been studied into the broad embedding of systemic design into an Australian Government context.

Introducing the case study

Building on my previous discussion at RSD9, this case study continues to focus on the journey of the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) in their implementation and embedding of systemic design as its default approach to delivering major and complex change. While I will not resurface the theoretical or practical justification for the application of systemic design here (rather, will take it its merits are agreed upon), I will highlight the areas that this case study is most interested in.

Systemic design is a pluralistic practice that seeks to helps designers:

  • Understand complex systems, and the context of that which is being designed, utilising a range of tools and methods such as visualisation to help make sense of data
  • Emphasise the connections and relationships within the system
  • Include multiple perspectives
  • Identify leverage points, which can help designers see opportunities and identify which interventions may have a significant impact.

In researching whether this eventuates in practice, it is also important to consider the implementation of the practice into the Australian Taxation Office. Just like policy problems are complex, so too are the organisations and teams in which we are implementing systemic design. As such, it is important to understand, make sense of, and discuss the factors associated with implementing and embedding systemic design that may be inhibiting or enabling its success or failure.

The systemic approach that was followed

While the case studies focus on the implementation of systemic design into the ATO, it is also relevant to emphasise that an approach systemic approach was undertaken in its implementation. Both systemic design and normalisation process theory (theory specifically tailored for the implementation of interventions into complex settings) was used. This was brought to life in several ways and focus areas:

  • The practice itself was collaboratively designed with practitioners and stakeholders and tailored for the ATO and its needs and constraints
  • The practice was designed in a way that sought to shift the overall organisational system towards better dealing with complex issues
  • The implementation considered normalisation process theory:
    • Organisation’s capacity to coordinate actions to support the practice
    • The organisation’s commitment to operationalise the practice
    • The workability and integration of the practice into the organisation
  • The practitioners’ contributions to enacting the practice, including investing in its meaning and why systemic design is required, commitment to the practice, collective action, and appraisal

A systemic approach was taken to consider not only the methodology or practice itself but also the shifts required at the individual, team (design practice) and organisational level in order to embrace the philosophy of systemic design and more systems-led ways of thinking.

These considerations meant that extensive stakeholders were involved, from the 80 design practitioners, key clients, decision-makers and senior leaders within the ATO, the project management and funding executives, workforce and L&D areas. Further, given the practice is associated with the practical advancement of systemic design as well as theories of implementation and organisational systems, other government, private sector, not for profit and academics in related fields were involved and contributed to the success of the journey thus far.

Purpose of the contributing: playing with tensions

While the ATO has now implemented systems-led design as part of its design practice and broader governance for delivering large change, it is still a new practice and the ATO will continue to evolve it. It is promising to see that early sentiment obtained from a survey and focus groups indicate that designers in the ATO do think that the ATO’s systemic design framework is valuable for their work. However, early insights indicate a few tensions that I would like to gain feedback, insights, challenges and gaps and further questions that will allow me to further my research into this case and support the Australian Government in successfully embracing systemic design for better public outcomes.

Such tensions include:

  • Tensions between tangibility of a model vs the importance of principles of the practice
  • Tensions between principles within the practice
  • Tensions of when, and what types of projects to apply systemic design to
  • Tensions in ideal implementation approaches and what happens on the ground
  • Tensions in boundaries – where do we draw this
  • Tensions in linking the practice to public outcomes
  • Tensions in doing the practice by stealth with making it explicit and recognised
  • Tensions between the capability of practitioners and organisational constraints

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Posted Sep-2021


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