Introducing Systemic Design into the Largest Australian Government Design Function

Misha Kaur, Australian Taxation Office / Doctoral Candidate UNSW Australia

Read the working paper ⇒

Researchers and practitioners alike are in general agreement that the public sector is increasingly tasked with managing ‘complex problems’ (APSC, 2018; Bason, 2018; J Body & Terrey, 2019; Dorst, 2015; Geyer & Rihani, 2010; Malcolm, 2017; Murthy, 2000), that are situated in an increasingly complex, uncertain and unpredictable world (Arnold & Wade, 2015; Bullock, Mountford, & Stanley, 2001). Many authors have warned that the established practices in government are not sufficient to deal with such problems (APSC, 2018; Bason, 2014; Bourgon, 2008; Eggers & Singh, 2009; Mulgan & Albury, 2003).

As the complexity of societal problems increases, such as the sustainability of Australia’s economic landscape through design of the taxation system, and the implications of this have become increasingly known, government practice has struggled to keep up (Bason, 2014). This has included arguments against traditional reductionist approaches (breaking down a system into its constituent parts in order to understand or study it) and in favour of dealing with complex problems more holistically (Head, 2008; Heylighen, 2001). Geyer and Cairney (2015) suggest that reductionist approaches are not effective because public sector problems deal with complex systems that cannot be broken down as behaviours of the system are only present due to the interactions between the parts. Given these deliberations, it is argued by many scholars that for the public sector to operate effectively in an increasingly unpredictable and complex society, it needs to innovate and adopt new practices (Bason, 2014; Bourgon, 2008; Head, 2008; Moore & Hartley, 2010; Jonathan Rosenhead, 1992).

Design as a practice has been increasingly promoted as a novel approach to dealing with complex problems in the public sector (Bason, 2018; Brown & Wyatt, 2010; A. Clarke & Craft, 2019; Council, 2013). Design has been put forward by advocates as an alternative approach to reductionist thinking for problem solving (Baran & Lewandowski, 2017; Brown & Wyatt, 2010; Graham, 2013). In recent times, it has been is viewed as a genuine alternative to conventional complex problem solving (Buchanan, 2001; Dorst, 2015) and public sector interest and its use in dealing with public sector and policy problems have grown over the last two decades (Brown & Wyatt, 2010).

Even though design has been increasingly adopted as a practice to deal with public sector challenges, several critiques have been made of both the practice, and designers’ ability to deal with the complexity of public sector challenges. These criticisms generally centre on three themes: inability to understand and deal with complexity (Dorst, 2019a, 2019b), overfocus on a user or user group at the expense of other users or system elements (Coulton & Lindley, 2019; Birger Sevaldson, 2018; Steen, 2011), and the tendency of design practices to degenerate into a formulaic process.

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 (J. L. Blizzard & Klotz, 2012; Peter Jones, 2014a; PH Jones & VanPatter, 2009). This discussion on the integration of systems thinking and design has led to the emergence of systemic design as a field of research and practice, the purpose of which is to integrate systems thinking and design to better support designers with complex design challenges that are present in today’s society (Lurås, 2016; Birger Sevaldson & Jones, 2019; Birger Sevaldson & Ryan, 2014). Systemic design is not meant to be a rigid framework, instead, it offers a flexible approach (Aguirre Ulloa, 2020; Ryan, 2014) that helps designers to: understand complex systems, and the context of that which is being designed, respect and incorporate multiple perspectives and to identify leverage points, which can help designers see opportunities and identify which interventions may have a significant impact (Lurås, 2016).

However, limited examples can be identified in the literature of examining whether systemic design can really help designers in the Australian public sector do these things. Therefore, I build on the scholarly literature by examining the design practice of the largest design function in the Australian Government, within the Australian Taxation Office. The ATO has a long-standing practice of using design, specifically, human centred design (John Body, 2008; Di Russo, 2016), and is tasked with dealing with complex systemic challenges (Manhire, 2015), making it a fertile bed to develop and study design as a practice. I provide findings on the issues with the previous design practice that led to the recent implementation of systemic design. A new framework and methodology of systemic design was co-designed with designers in the Australian Taxation Office, to ensure its adoption and promotion of new skills and practices of designers. In addition, I describe early findings of how it has changed designer’s practices, within the taxation system context.

This paper contributes to the literature on the practical application of systemic design and offer other researchers and practitioners’ insight into embedding such a practice into a large, design function within government.

Posted: Oct-2020

Recent Posts

RSD 10 Call for Papers

RSD10 offers a platform for discussing ongoing work with peers and presents the state-of-the-art in the systemic design field. This year there are two paper tracks: short papers for ongoing work, and long papers for finished work.

More information

Join the mailing list and stay up-to-date.


Share This