How NSW Department of Education has used design thinking to transform digital services experiences

Director of digital experience design shares the four-year journey he's been on to transform the department's technology and approach to be more customer-led

The cultural shift

Such ideas have been there a long time, and more recently, the department has run ideation sessions to nut out concepts further. But what’s really fuelled efforts is embracing human-centred design. For Buckmaster, design thinking is about creative problem solving.

“Four years ago, I remember putting in a deck about how we deliver a strategy, and people just didn’t understand it,” he recalled. “But what you saw was corporates like Westpac starting to use design thinking and it having a dramatic impact on their customer experience. This allowed them to create a significant relationship between you and the bank.” 

A big step forward for NSW Department of Education was adopting a global experience framework (GEF) for digital services. Rather than redeveloping every time a website or portal is built, this is about building a code base and toolkits of things that can be reused.

Another macro step forward has been adoption of similar practices at sister departments such as Service NSW and the Digital Transformation Agency, and a cultural shift towards cross-departmental collaboration.

For example, NSW Department of Education worked with the NSW Department of Finance, Services and Innovation on its pilot online enrolment form via an accelerator.

“We co-located and worked to launch things quickly and fail fast,” Buckmaster said. “People in government used to look at me horrified at such a concept, whereas now controlled failure and test-and-learn is widely accepted as the right thing to do. It’s really come from that cross-collaboration in government.”  

An early cultural step forward Buckmaster cited was rebranding the digital services function to digital experience design. This helped with the emphasis on the design component, and in shifting project management into product. Cross-functional teams and being more squad-based are other key elements in the mix.

“Projects have a finite start and end date, so the next most important thing is ensuring people see it quickly moving from project to a product. That’s what gets you the continual evolution,” he said. “And that fosters proof-of-concepts, testing and if it fails, iterating. That has been fundamental in changing our team structure.”  

Along the way, NSW Department of Education has recruited skills as well as worked to build up internal teams. “In the old days, people generally thought a career would last 5-10 years and if that was the case, it was easier to bring someone in. But these days if we’re doing things right, those roles could be redundant in three years,” Buckmaster commented.

“However, the core capabilities will always be there. Whether it is collaboration, working in agile, fast environments and the creative thinking capabilities - those are the core things.  

“If we move to lifelong learning and learn to learn, then we need to encourage people to focus on evolving their careers. I also think it’s not necessarily my job to give someone a career; it’s my job to support them in their career. But they need to support themselves in terms of learning new skills.”  

Of course, there’s plenty more on the operational front to be done. A big one is the nature of things like procurement changing. Buckmaster admitted government is not there yet.

“In the waterfall model, you did the business case, costed it, then went and built and launched it. Nowadays, people recognise you just need a small amount of money to get a proof of concept done, and the outcome may be you throw it away, or it becomes an amazing thing you then scale,” Buckmaster said.

Judging success

Changing the dialogue on digital and investing in digital has been Buckmaster’s biggest achievement to date.

“Being able to do things where I’m able to secure funding to put in an enterprise solution. That’s the fundamental piece. Making people realise there needs to be an investment,” he said.  “But I’d also say being able to walk into a room and talk about design thinking and know it, is another fundamental step forward. Then for people to do things like having a design system and one brand and unified thing is the other.”  

There are hard metrics to meet for NSW Department of Education too, such as improving learning outcomes for a child. “My job is to make sure we facilitate that well in a digital world,” Buckmaster said.

Internally, meanwhile, he’s looking to reduce admin overheads by 20 per cent. Already, basic content authoring and asset management has been improved, with drag-and-drop imagery and artificial intelligence (AI) used to scan an image and auto-caption it.

“Principals are extremely busy people who need to be focused on leadership to their teachers. If there’s a sports event and they just want to get comms out to make people feel good about it and encourage community, we want it to be very simple to do,” Buckmaster said.  

Longer term, Buckmaster expected a massive uplift in the way parents communicate with the department and schools.

“As the Department of Education, we have these great minds and great resources are being built. Why aren’t we sharing them? Increased engagement with parents is significant, because it has direct implications on the learning outcomes of a child,” he added.  

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