Would a business unveil a new product without first engaging in extensive market testing? Focus groups of prospective users? Of course not. They’d likely lose a lot of money and trash their brand in the process. Yet, in the past, this was exactly what we’ve done with new social policy.
Traditionally, a particular need or social problem is identified, a policy response is drawn up, some key stakeholders are consulted, the Minister makes an announcement and the new program is then rolled out. Rarely did this process involve meaningful engagement with the actual people the service is designed to help.
The alternative is “co-design”.
Co-design begins with people – their experiences, perspectives, values, challenges and understandings
In the social policy setting, co-design involves working with people who experience vulnerabilities to jointly create interventions, services and programs which will work in the context of their lives, and will reflect their own values and goals.
It’s all about asking ‘how can we help you?”
This involves governments and policymakers letting go of professional assumptions about a group’s perspectives and experiences and actively learning from what they say and do. There’s still an important place for expertise, professional knowledge and research, but in tandem with the perspectives of real people.
There is a growing recognition among government and community organisations that we need to work more closely with people experiencing vulnerabilities, in order to better understand their needs and devise policy responses accordingly. Co-design has been embraced by the Royal Commission into Family Violence and other key Victorian Government reforms including the Roadmap to Reform, the transition to the NDIS, social housing and homelessness and 10-Year Mental Health plan.
But co-design is not a linear process. You don’t start at one end of the process and finish neatly at the other end.
It can be done in a multitude of different ways, and therefore cannot be delineated in a concrete step-by-step process. This is because people, problems and contexts are always going to be variable; as will the organisations and practitioners who work with them.
Co-design practice reflects more a way of thinking than it does a process.
Take for example the case of Kyle Schwartz a grade three primary school teacher in the US who wanted to better support her students who were predominantly experiencing poverty and disadvantage.
“As a new teacher, I struggled to understand the reality of my students’ lives and how best to support them.”
“I just felt like there was something I didn’t know about my students.”
She then asked students to grab a pen and paper and finish the statement, “I Wish My Teacher Knew…”. The responses were raw and honest.
- ‘I wish my teacher knew… that I don’t have pencils at home to do my homework.’
- ‘I wish my teacher knew… I got bullied on the bus and it made me feel sad.’
- ‘I wish my teacher knew… how much I miss my dad because he was deported to Mexico when I was three years old and I haven’t seen him in six years.’
Schwartz told ABC News America the exercise had an immediate and positive effect.
“After one student shared that she had no one to play with at recess, the rest of the class chimed in and said, ‘We got your back.’ The next day during recess, I noticed she was playing with a group of girls. Not only can I support my students, but my students can support each other.”
This is a simple but clear example of the co-design mentality in action.
The 2016 report Dropping of the Edge highlighted the deep and persistent disadvantage in communities across Australia. These are “wicked problems”; not wicked as in evil, but in the sense of them being complex and difficult to solve. These interrelated problems go beyond the capacity of any one organisation to understand and fix, and there is often disagreement about the causes of the problems too.
Government, departments and community organisations must walk alongside people who experience vulnerabilities, to work with them in creating interventions, services and programs that reflect their own values and goals.
Co-design can be challenging. We as governments, organisations and professionals need to leave our professional assumptions at the door, not dictate another person’s needs, but listen to everyone’s experiences and treat everyone equally.
Mary Sayers is the Deputy Chief Executive Officer of VCOSS.