User-centred research guides policy for the employment system
The young jobseeker scours yet another website, emailing her CV to a company that may not even have a vacancy. She visits his local service provider, sits at a computer and, in a single morning, applies for 20 jobs – knowing she will likely not get an interview for any.
After all, she has to meet her monthly requirement of 20 applications or her Newstart allowance will be cut off.
Across town, the HR director sifts through a pile of CVs. None have the specific qualifications he needs. He’s getting pretty tired of being inundated with scattergun approaches that never seem to lead anywhere. The volume of applications seems needlessly crushing.
Sometimes, a system is not working optimally for anybody in it.
That’s why the Department of Employment Skills, Small and Family Business has been working with ThinkPlace to rethink how its jobactive program works and who it works for.
It has been an ambitious piece of policy design but also more than that: a gold standard for how user-centred design and research methods can support, inform and drive policy creation to create better future experiences for both citizens AND government.
jobactive is an Australian Government program, administered by service providers and built on the concept of mutual obligation. The current contracts to administer it expire in 2022. In anticipation of that, the department wanted to move towards a system that lessened the focus on compliance and box-ticking for job seekers and genuinely engage with them to provide tools, skills and experience that would be more likely to lead to securing a job.
While service providers had a productive business model within the system, job seekers and employers anecdotally reported that it was not working well for them. For employers there was too much noise in the system. Too many applicants applying for roles they were not suited for.
This challenge represented an opportunity to apply the user-centred design expertise that ThinkPlace has accumulated over more than a decade to policy design in a high-impact space.
With this work, user-centred design has set a new benchmark in policy design. We have genuinely put the user at the centre. (project lead Mark Thompson)
Early on in this project the Department came to an important realisation.
While job seekers and employers were its two most important stakeholders the Department didn’t know nearly enough about them. What did they want? What did they value? What motivated them?
The objective of jobactive was to help jobseekers move off welfare and into paid employment as efficiently as possible. So what were the blockers and barriers that most often prevented people from making this shift?
Beginning in 2017, ThinkPlace worked with the department on a Discovery phase – using an innovative combination of behavioural insights, ethnographic research and design thinking methods we comprehensively mapped the job seeking system from both job seekers’ and employers’ perspectives. The unprecedented insights gathered in this phase were used to inform and drive a prototype for a new policy framework and a new jobactive.
ThinkPlace was then asked to engage with job seekers and employers from across Australia to test, revise and rework that framework.
HOW WE DID IT
Over the course of eighteen months, across discovery, prototyping and co-design phases we engaged with 140 job seekers, 72 employers and 69 provider staff members across urban and regional Australia.
ThinkPlace worked with the Department and Expert Advisory Panel to prototype and concept test policy options with job seekers, employers and providers. Through this process we developed a better understanding of what might work, what doesn’t work and why.
Working closely with the policy teams, we developed a number of scenarios and prototypes around key policy questions to explore, test and validate with users.
We wanted to know how jobseekers felt about the process of looking for work. What motivated them to look for and find work? More importantly, what were the blockers that limited their ability or motivation to find employment? How were people living with disabilities served by the system? What about people in remote and rural communities?
Some of these findings seem intuitively obvious but only in retrospect. The compliance culture of the current system was a significant demotivator. Applying for 20 jobs a month and routinely being turned down for all of them was a worse outcome for everybody than simply applying for ten positions that you are suited for.
It is via processes such as these that policy-making becomes immersive and responsive to the needs of those it is being formulated for. To enable this, we invited the department’s Expert Advisory Panel, policy and digital team members into the field with us to learn first-hand from the system users we were talking to. After each field work sprint we held walkthroughs to share insights, iterate our approach and identify the next round of policy questions to explore.
First hand engagement with users provides moments of deeper empathy and understanding that are hard to replicate and communicate through written reports alone - Project Lead Mark Thompson
To understand how a job plan could be more meaningful and effective for job seekers, we created cards describing goals, motivations and gathered their reactions and priorities, creating an understanding of the importance of agency and choice.
We complemented this iterative design-led research with behavioural insights survey of job seekers to understand the broad applicability of our insights.
By supporting the policy development process with user-centred insights from the start, our approach helped to identify hidden benefits that could be amplified in the future policy as well as risks that will need to be mitigated.
By amplifying the human stories and personal implications of policy decisions, ThinkPlace's design artefacts created compelling drivers for strategic decisions, effectively connecting evidence-based policy direction to senior stakeholders, the Expert Advisory Panel and the Minister and her office.
The series of user-centred design projects ensures that the Department has a rigorous and empathetic evidence base that articulates behavioural drivers and user experiences across different cohorts and personas. The artefacts and knowledge sharing created through these projects will form the cornerstone of a new and better employment services program.