2013/10/11 09:45 “The rich picture of the civil servant systemic designer: An emerging context” | Jonathan Veale | Relating Systems Thinking & Design 2013

Digest from #RSD2 of Jonathan Veale @JAVeale talk with @playthink on sketchnote on Civil Service Systemic Design at Relating Systems Thinking and Design 2 at AHO Oslo School of Design and Architecture


This digest was created in real-time during the meeting, based on the speaker’s presentation(s) and comments from the audience. The content should not be viewed as an official transcript of the meeting, but only as an interpretation by a single individual. Lapses, grammatical errors, and typing mistakes may not have been corrected. Questions about content should be directed to the originator. The digest has been made available for purposes of scholarship by David Ing.

Jonathan Veale is a futurist/strategic designer in Edmonton for the Alberta Public Service

  • This talk was approved for public release

There might be an emerging practice for systemic design in government

  • Helsinki Design Lab
  • Mindlab

Have been prototyping this

  • 3.5 people
  • Working with government at strategic level

Own expertise is in strategic design

Here today, as a private citizen, although endorsed by government to be here

Had worked in SLab at OCAD U.

Will talk in a limited sense on the case study, as can impact policy

Aerial photo of Canada, with Alberta

  • Alberta is larger than France, and it’s not even the biggest province
  • Alberta was settled from the south and the east
  • Mindset:  known as cowboy country, love beef
  • Being a frontier, edge of a system
  • Incorporated as a province in 1905
  • Geographically diverse space
  • Colonial history, U.S. occupied south until English came
  • Economic, large oil fields, in oil sands
  • Have had some recent shocks to systems
  • Wonder:  maybe need to think contextually about the system

Dan Hill:  Dar Matter and Trojan Hostrses:  A strategid Design Vocabulary

  • Written while in Helsinki
  • Government is too important to fail
  • This is a different tribe

Civil Servant Systemic Designer

  • Entrusted with the public interest
  • Practices within the architecture of the government

Housed within a ministry, as don’t have other way of organizing in Alberta

Have talked about silos in government

  • Still have silos, but trying to ensure they’re permeable
  • Have create pods, like a pod of whales that move together
  • Work in the ministry of energy, working with environment and natural resources
  • Rules:  can talk to anyone in government, can call a deputy minister

Have worked on:

  • Childcare
  • Leadership succession
  • Climate change, in respect of economics and urban development


  • The place where we take decisions, based on public interest
  • A destination

What do we do?

  • Centricity with users, citizens
    • Strategic designers talking about stewardship as modes of behaviour
    • Hard to separate in head
  • Create
  • Capture
  • Deliver
  • Towards public interest

Stewardship isn’t just the model, but the quality of the model

Bring an innovation focus to the civil service

  • Multiple tensions
  • Where will be place ourselves within the system?
  • Add an extra line of legitimacy and credibility
  • From Mindlab in Copenhagen, need to provide deliverables to give legitimacy and credibility

If can work within positivist monist design of government, and can be constructivist, then can work in government

  • Rarely look at level of individuals

Value:  government is siloed by theme or classification, but also in modes of behaviour

  • Some people who frame
  • Some who plan
  • Some who execute
  • Thus, siloing
  • As systemic designer, can bridge silos and make them permeable

Government not known for being material

  • Challenge to make it tangible to people
  • Hard to understand complexity and complicatedness
  • Scale is hard to work with

Problem space with people, and the tangible abstract


  • Positivist culture doesn’t necessarily value participatory or intuitive methodology, e.g. engineers don’t naturally think this way
  • Success to bridge this?
  • Citizen-centric methods are rare, but opportune:  ethics of citizen-centric research, where government has power, but don’t go for research ethics approval
  • Building trust has to be central

Problem space

  • Sometimes spend a lot of time in Creating Value space, as hard to understand, difficult to bridge to execution


  • Straegy and policy seem intangible, government services are tangible
  • Intervention is more top-down:  Cook, Steinberg and Boyer at Helsinki Design Lab with a project as a way of breaking down the problem space; government typically works top-down, so advancing projects is new

Case study, have done 15 projects over 2 years

  • How might we improve the state of trust relations between citizens, government, and petroleum industry?
  • Low trust in natural resources segment
  • Tried scenario mapping, rich pictures, gigamapping
  • Focus on creating, framing the problem
  • Compared to other civil servants, wanted to bridge, address the problematic situation, connect with people who make rules
  • Had a conference:  Unfinished Futures
  • An executive summary, poster session where people could engage and modify, then breakouts
  • e.g. if you are responsible for climate change, then how to do that

Then did again, with younger civil servants, as colloquium

  • Now replicated across government
  • Posters, etc.
  • Now speaking the same language on the issue, can’t yet solve it, but we know what the problem is

How did we do this?

  • 3 designers, paired with similar teams across the government
  • Co-led this, as ministries across pods
  • People at the bottom level are cooperating, then the senior officials are also collaborating
  • Deputy minister said need to come present what is going

8 broad lessons for thinking about future in government

1. Visualization

  • In government, make decisions by pushing briefing notes
  • One page, 12 point Arial font, have to concise
  • Take to deputy, he says yes or no
  • We need to work with leadership team, building models with them
  • Tried video briefing notes, those don’t work
  • When can delegate into paper, that works

2. Need depth as well as context

  • Systemic thinkers are hard on people thinking deep and narrow
  • Need to find a systemic way

3. Ability to network and work across government

  • If in department when can do that, it’s great
  • Find the people closest to the problem

4. Systemic futures and systemic design as methodologies

5. Champions guide on projects

  • Say should challenge, they generate ideas
  • Practical to move culture

6.  Being honest and open about cultural differences

  • Engineers, MBAs

7. Literacy in systems thinking

  • Works for public, too
  • Wide, but not much depth, e.g. gigamapping

8. Must be humble leader, cultivate innovation

Some outstanding questions



  • Now working on energy literacy
  • Typical way would have been to create policy, and then send money
  • Instead, have created a project
  • Direction, more to partner with design community to design material interventions, if they work, then can spread out
  • e.g. public spaces, interacting with government
  • Struggle with whether it’s material enough

Learnings from providing visual briefings

  • Hugely successful on lower part of iceberg, on shift of mindshifts
  • Worked visually
  • Scanned all of the documents, they put them on wall, let executives cluster them
  • They found that there are assumption that may or may not be valid
  • Exercise points out that there’s a blind side

From deputy’s point of view, what’s wrong with the briefing note?  If saw wall, would it be easier to read on one sheet of paper?

  • On deep mindset, visual works better
  • On an event that needs a decision now, then the text works better
  • Haven’t tried to change documents for an event

[Abstract of talk from http://futurecultures.blogspot.ca/2013/09/abstract-civil-servant-systemic.html]

Abstract: Government decisions manifest within the landscape and can greatly affect change within their jurisdiction and beyond. A perfect example would be decisions about regional energy policy. A government’s views about the production, transportation and consumption of energy within their geography notably impacts land development, resource extraction, economic investment, urban design, transportation, climate change, economic competitiveness and the social mix of a region . Energy policy decisions are foundational to complex predicaments, including energy insecurity, poverty, food and water security and social strife. Notable examples abound but this complexity manifests at the human scale towards whole systems and the spaces in-between.

Until relatively recently, government policy development, insofar as it was systemic, relied upon hard systems methodology which began with a knowable problem and converged on a solution . This linear and monistic approach brought depth but lacked context of the wider societal, technological, economic, ecological and political system. In simpler times, and in the absence of complex systems methodologies, this approach was the best option for policy development. Consistent with this view, governments organized themselves around discrete policy silos, each bringing an expert depth to their thematic responsibility. This is opportune where increasing specialization leads to new knowledge, but challenged where context is needed to avoid unintended consequences . Complexity as it is now, calls upon government to navigate policy predicaments with a new architecture – one that brings both depth and context for rigorous policy.
This paper examines the emerging context of the civil servant – one entrusted with the public interest by duty and responsibility – who practices within the architecture of government, deploying systemic design methodologies towards the complex predicaments that societies faces. Governments are responding to complexity in policy decisions – design consultants are retained; government staff are trained in designerly ways; and, experienced-designers are employed on in-house consulting teams. These models have the effect of increasing the profile of design practice within government. The model of the Department of Energy in Alberta, Canada is examined with a view towards articulating this emerging context for systemic design practice. The case of a trans-ministry design team applying systemic design methodology around a shared strategic concern is presented.
The case explores key questions about the Civil Servant Systemic Designer:
  • What is the cultural challenge of systemic design for government?
  • What is the role of the designer in this challenge?
  • What is the relationship of the designer within the business model?
  • Which professional qualities must the designer possess?
  • What are the implications for systemic design practice?
This paper is fundamentally about how systemic designers who live within the architecture of the government can best deliver value to the public they serve.

A Shared Stewardship Agenda
Conventional civil service, not unlike systemic design practice, centres on stewardship but the two disciplines advance the concept differently. This paper advances that the civil servant designer synthesises both. In the case of civil service, stewardship is an end state that aligns with the public interest . It is the ‘place’ where we take decisions to with an idealized objective to balance competing interests and offer advice in the best interest of society. Design nuances the scale of decisions by extending into human- or citizen centricity in decision-making . While systemic design has added that stewardship is active and about bridging the value chain – the careful and dutiful execution of modes of behaviour from problem conception to value delivery and necessary feedbacks . In this respect, systemic design brings an advanced and innovation focused agenda of stewardship to the governance space where ‘delivered value’ equates with credibility and social approval . For civil service, human centricity and the stewardship of ideas to fruition appears novel. From this vantage, practicing within the architecture of government might be the best place for some systemic designers, especially those particularly concerned about advancing stewardship as a mode of behaviour and gaining a civil servant’s eye for the public interest.
Reconciling the Cultural Tension
The civil servant systemic designer lives and breathes the culture of government; therefore, this experience might signal possible futures for this emerging context. The case study shows that the ultimate challenge for the civil servant systemic designer is cultural. The natural tension between the positivist and reductionist community, which dominates government, and the emerging context of constructivist and systemic design is explored. This paper argues that the way the systemic designer reconciles this tension is critical to the survival of the practice. With systemic design bringing urgently needed “rich picture” context to decisions , reconciliation enables a requisite depth of specialist knowledge to be deployed against defined problems. The civil servant systemic designer must avoid both the pathology of excessive depth and the pathology of contextual overabundance .
Case Study: Rich Picture of Systemic Design in the Government of Alberta
Beginning in early 2012, the Government of Alberta, led by the Department of Energy identified the need for innovation using systemic design methodology. The need for systemic context and integration within the Natural Resources and Environment cluster of ministries was observed. Newly retained systemic design and strategic foresight staff convened from across government to design a context-gaining approach to both pilot systemic design and strategic foresight methodologies and ameliorate the challenges of present-day natural resources development. The project is ongoing, with the first phase now complete. This case study examines the first phase of the project with a view towards describing the approach, methodology, and implications for systemic design practice. The scale of the project is noteworthy, with an internal team implementing a program that crossed nine departments and impacted +100 participants.
Lessons for Systemic Design Practice
Broad lessons for systemic design practice are discussed:
  • Visualization as practiced by designers is both a powerful integrative tool and cognitive shortcut to inform executive decision-makers. Visualization should strive to translate between traditional public sector language and the citizens we serve.
  • The civil servant systemic designer must develop fluency in articulating the platitudes and nuances of complex policy. In this respect, framing must strive for context as well as depth.
  • The civil servant systemic designer must seamlessly network and integrate across the public and private spheres. This includes finding the people closest to complex problems. Networking is one pathway to integration.
  • Systemic design and systemic futures studies are complementary methodologies. Both concern the anticipation and co-creation of the future. Both are concerned with robustness, resilience and adaptivity in designing solutions.
  • Systemic designers, as part of the minority culture within government, must cultivate and service the needs of executive champions. Champions articulate the story to outsiders and interpret cultural differences. They give the designer an inside perspective to the institution, while the designer helps the champion to see the institution from an outsider’s view.
  • The civil servant systemic designer must be honest and open about cultural differences and how these impact the delivery of work. This reduces unproductive conflict and supports productive collaboration.
  • Systemic designers are humble leaders, who cultivate innovation, transform the idea of value away from just efficiency, reframe risk in context to opportunity, reconnect stewardship with decision-making and build trusted citizen experiences at many scales.
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Jonathan Veale


#civil-servant, #designer, #rsd2, #systemic