Introducing systemic design to support an Australian Government regulatory agency address complex problems.

Bridget Malcolm

public sector innovation
regulatory innovation
complex problems
system modelling
problem boundaries
problem framing
collaborative innovation

The problems we face today are growing increasingly complex and our current public sector practices are not adequate to manage these challenges (Eggers & Singh 2009; Bason 2014; Bourgon 2008; Mulgan & Albury 2003). Within the context of regulation, agencies are being challenged to move beyond their traditional role of enforcing pre-determined regulations, to being able to identify and address complex problems through the development of unique responses (Sparrow 2008; Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development 2010). This shifts the role of regulatory agencies from being implementers of regulations to being designers in their own right. The proposed paper builds off the findings from an earlier stage of this research, which was presented at RSD5 and involved a case study to understand the current practice to address complex problems. These findings informed the development of a systemic design intervention which was developed within the regulatory agency context to support the project team to address a second complex problem. Key findings from the implementation of the systemic design intervention include the relevance of system maps to support regulatory staff to identify the nature of the problem beyond individual problem components, the value of collective framing of problems with broader stakeholders within the system and the identification of leverage points to target problem responses.
Case study This research involved two qualitative case studies, which were conducted within an Australian Government regulatory agency over a six-month period.

The research was conducted in line with the Design Research Methodology (Blessing & Chakrabarti 2009) to first understand the nature of the current context so that a design intervention can be prescribed to trial within that context. The first case study involved in-depth research to understand the current regulatory problem-solving practice. Considering the diverse nature of practice, a theoretical framework was constructed to understand and compare these findings. This included the context of the practice, the practitioners, the problem being addressed, the actions taken (including methods, principles, methodologies and paradigms or tacit/implicit knowledge) and the problem response.
The findings the first case study were compared to insights of practice from fields that have been developed specifically to deal with complexity – systems thinking, complexity theory and systemic design. Methodologies from systems thinking, which encourage practitioners to view the problem as part of an adaptive whole system, were identified as being highly relevant to regulatory.


Tacit/ Implicit Knowledge practice based on the compartmentalised governance systems that regulatory agencies operate within and the increasing complexity of problems they are required to address which exist in complex and dynamic social systems. Four different methodologies from the systemic design field were examined to identify common systemic design principles that provide an alternative way to act against complex problems (from Jones 2014; Ryan 2014; Dorst 2015 and ThinkPlace 2016). The common principles amongst these methodologies were exploring problem framing, exploring human needs, utilising divergent thinking, using open and creative dialogue, applying whole systems thinking and experimentation to test ideas. The findings of current regulatory practice in case study one were compared against the systemic design principles to identify opportunities for these principles to support the current practice. Based on these insights, a systemic design intervention was developed. This included problem scoping, stakeholder mapping, creating a systems map of the problem space, comparing the problem to indicators of complexity (Snowden & Boone 2007) and two co-design workshops.
Case study two involved the application of the systemic design intervention to support the regulatory agency to address a second complex problem. The researcher and the regulatory agency project team applied the initial activities in the design intervention. The researcher and managers from the project team also facilitated the co-design workshops, which included participants from four different government agencies involved in the regulation sector where the complex problem had emerged.

The findings from case study two revealed an enthusiasm for the systemic design methods, with indications that the inclusion of systems thinking and complexity theory methods and principles increased the perceived seriousness of the design approach which was appropriate within the government setting. A stakeholder journey / ecosystem map was developed with the workshop participants which highlighted the complexity of the current system and enabled staff to see the big picture, stated as “the lid of the jigsaw puzzle” by Interviewee 6. The proposed problem responses identified in the co-design workshops were not significantly different to current reward and punishment approaches, except for the inclusion of collaborative responses which were enabled through the participatory nature of the workshops. This was likely due to the relatively conservative nature of the design approach to meet the criteria of a ‘safe experiment’ within the regulatory agency. However, the development of collaborative responses with other agencies in the sector was a significant advancement from the current identified in case study one. Several barriers to the implementation of design within a public sector context were also identified.

This research progresses the understanding of systemic design practice and the opportunities and barriers for implementation within the public sector.
Supporting regulators to innovate around complex problem responses is a novel application of systemic design, but also an important one considering the nature of the regulatory role in managing social and economic problems.

Posted: Oct-2017

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