Suzi Woodrow-Read & Ruth Toomey On Engaging Communities & Dealing With Complexity When Tackling Social Issues

Suzi Woodrow-Read and Ruth Toomey

Suzi Woodrow-Read and Ruth Toomey

Suzi Woodrow-Read is a Director and Lead Consultant, Community Insights at the Queensland Public Service Commission.

Suzi has strong co-design, design thinking & creative expertise and is a facilitation & workshopping specialist with over 20 years experience in consultancy, leadership development, coaching & education. She has strong experience across the public, private & NGO sectors.


Ruth Toomey is a Principal Consultant, Community Insights at the Queensland Public Service Commission.

Ruth has over 10 years community sector experience specialising in participatory approaches and systems change.

Ruth is a specialist in working with complexity and ambiguity with leadership experience across both non-government and private sectors. Ruth has high level engagement expertise and has a social science background with strong research and analysis skills.


Suzi and Ruth discuss solving complex, ambiguous, multi-stakeholder problems with co-design and other participatory methods. They share strong insights into identifying problems before jumping to solutions and the future of policy development.


Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)

[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your backgrounds and what led you to working in the Queensland Public Service Commission?

[Suzi Woodrow-Read] - For me, I started in education and youth work, and took a long and eclectic path to getting to public service that included working in four part-time jobs, while I had three kids, in various fields to do with human resources, with lecturing, with teaching drama to kids, to managing associations. That led me into being a consultant in organisational development in facilitation and leadership development. But also with an arts based practise, which utilised my background in creative industries. I found that my favourite clients when I was a consultant were both state and local government, so I wanted to look for a career where really the only purpose of working was to produce public benefit. That led me to the public service, which has led me to Community Insights.

Fantastic. It would've been very busy with three kids and four part-time jobs, that's for sure.

[Suzi] - Yeah, it was doing my head in. Good preparation for complex problems!

Absolutely. What about you Ruth?

[Ruth Toomey] - I studied social science and I was really interested in where policy impacts community. So in my working career, I started working pretty much straight away in the peak, community body sector. I started off in community development roles and then moved into policy type roles, and then I had a manager in one of those organisations who started to share with me her passion for participatory approaches and futures work, and under her leadership I developed my community engagement skills.

From there I was given the opportunity to come across to government to do a six month project in the Department of Housing and Public Works. I had a strong background in housing and homelessness. I was working in a place based project where the department had decided to try to work differently in co-designing an approach with community, and so we were partnering with Community Insights to do that piece of work and that was a really significant point in my career because I really loved that way of working with Community Insights. From there I was offered an opportunity to come across and do some work with the team and I've been here for more than a year now.

It sounds like you're really enjoying your role here.

[Ruth] - Love it.


What are the broader objectives of the Queensland Public Service Commission and what sort of projects have you both recently been involved in?

[Suzi] - The Public Service Commission is what we call a central agency, so we look over the public sector, and when we talk about agencies they're things like the Department of Communities, Department of Health, Department of Housing. So agencies that have specific responsibilities in delivering services to Queensland. So as a central agency, the Public Service Commission really looks at how do we support and enable the public sector to be a future focused, contemporary public sector. So we really work with agencies to really help look at how we deliver government service better.

Community Insights is a team that sits within the Public Service Commission and we have a very specific role to work as internal consultants in the area of co-design, behavioural insights, solving problems that are often not just one agency to solve. So they're complex problems, often problems where the problems have been going for generations and they need new approaches to really move the needle and have some social impact. So the type of projects that we are working in at the moment include areas like child protection, child safety system, the justice system, we're working in parole reform and looking at some environmental projects.

[Ruth] - We're doing some work with youth justice to work differently to implement new pieces of work iteratively in communities. We're doing work internally with the PSC as well, helping the PSC to look at how it engages with its customers, as in the agencies that it works with, and how it captures the voice and works collaboratively with the public sector to achieve the outcomes that are desired.

[Suzi] - We're also doing some things in the responsible service of alcohol and looking at what are the systems that help responsible service of alcohol at various levels, looking at the environmental impact statements, and how the community engages in that process of really big infrastructure projects and gives their voice.

A lot of our work has brought us into contact in various ways with the delivery of services, particularly to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and families, children, broader communities. And that's been a fascinating space because that obviously touches a lot of work and it's really important work to be done.

How do you believe then the government might most effectively engage communities in order to tackle these complex issues and problems?

[Ruth] -

I think there's something around government really needing to gain the permission of communities to engage effectively.

And obviously, we know there's a spectrum of engagement and sometimes it's appropriate to just do the informing stuff, but really, our role is to try to help government to work with communities in more of a co-design approach to really level out that power imbalance.

It's really important for government to spend time to find the right people to be involved in that, and to spend time identifying the need and really understanding what the problems are before jumping to solutions, which I think is something that traditionally in the policy cycle has been the approach.

In our work we spend a significant amount of time gathering a whole range of data to really try to understand problems before we move to that solutions phase. So for government to really recognise aspects of complexity that communities are dealing with and to be able to hold that systems view is what we're trying to do for government to enable more effective engagement with communities.

What do you believe are the fundamental ingredients necessary when designing alongside these communities to ensure that the outcomes produce positive social impact?

[Suzi] -

Picking up on what Ruth said, the first thing is understanding that communities often have the answer and so listening and learning from the community is one of those vital ingredients.

And probably one of the greatest learnings that we've had in the two years that we've been doing projects is that the focus on outcomes is absolutely vital. What's the outcome that actually is needed to serve the public? But of equal importance is the process, and when the process is done badly, outcomes actually don't achieve what, collectively, people want those outcomes to achieve.

So the ingredient that actually becomes very important in all those process things is, how do we iterate, how do we learn, how do we set up a learning community that informs the process rather than having a very directed change process that you stick to slavishly because that's what's in the project plan?

Now for some, those kind of project plans are great. When something's very clear-cut, when there's clear cause-and-effect, then that kind of planning is really, really good.

But when you're working in a very complex, ambiguous, changing, multi-stakeholder, conflicting interests space, then you've really got to have a different process.

And so, they become the key ingredients and that's sometimes difficult because you don't know the process until you get into it.

What processes then, tools and methodologies do you commonly use in these projects?

[Ruth] - We have a very eclectic approach, I guess, and that's probably somewhat due to the different backgrounds that we have in our teams. We have people that have come from psychology backgrounds, we have social science, we have leadership, we have a range of expertise in our team. I think also because, as Suzi said, we deal with such a diversity of complex issues that really we need a toolkit to be able to cater to those different contexts. So processes and approaches that we use; we draw from disciplines of design, from behavioural insight, from neuroscience and leadership theory, from international development, from user experience, we use some futures methodologies, and we try to integrate elements from all of those to suit them to a particular application.

One approach that we've recently come into contact with that we're having a bit of fun playing with at the moment is PDIA, which is Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation. That comes from Harvard University and it came to us by some wonderful academics at UQ. What we're liking about it is that it seems to provide a framework for communicating and project managing iterative work in a way that could satisfy government agencies who might be more accustomed to those, sort of, logic maps, and Gantt charts, and what have you. So we're having fun playing with that in some of our projects at the moment.


What have been some of the biggest challenges then, in introducing these co-design methods within government and community?

[Suzi] - I think, for us, delivering public value is tough because not everybody agrees on what is value for them. So within the government context, what is considered as value is always contested because we don't have a homogeneous community that all wants the same thing. So using these kind of co-design approaches, it's inevitable that there's a tension. That there's a tension between stakeholders, there's a tension between the government process, and how community thinks things should roll out.

There's difficulty in dealing with complexity in new ways because often dealing with complexity takes a really long time, and it isn't until you get in the middle of it that you realise that an approach may not be working.

And sometimes that is difficult in a news cycle or with members of the community who understand their patch and what they want to see. How that's balanced with all of the other concerns that community, and government, and business, and global forces have.

So there's a whole lot of challenges in using these kind of new approaches because they're untested at the moment, and they are complex. When I say untested: they have been tested in various ways, but every situation is new.

So dealing with housing and homelessness in one region of Queensland is very different from dealing with it in another region.

So those new ways take some trust; they take some time for people to be educated about how it might be, both government and community.

And so there are some of the challenges we found in moving forward, but we firmly believe that it's work worth doing, and though there might be challenges along the way, if we go into it with a learning mindset together then we can work out how to overcome those challenges as they present.

So looking at social impact from a policy perspective, what do you believe are the key steps that government needs to take to help foster and support innovative social sector?

[Ruth] - We've had a few ideas around this.

I guess one is, well, government has a social procurement policy; personally, I think that could be strengthened by having some targets around that.

I think that the idea is there, and that that's a great thing, but I would like to see in the future maybe some targets set around that for government to put its money where its mouth is, I suppose. Social benefit bonds, I think are a great step and we'll be interested to see how the outcomes from those unfold over the coming years. Flexible funding approaches for government, which we know some departments are starting to move towards. Contracting for outcomes and giving organisations more freedom to look at how they might deliver on those outcomes, so I think that certainly fosters more innovation in the social sector. Also, market-led innovations, market-led approaches to funding, that we're starting to see more of in some departments as well, I think is a way of people being able to come in and present their new ideas to government and to get support to implement them.

Do you have any others Suzi?

[Suzi] - Look, I think there's small pockets of lots of things that people are doing from a policy perspective. I think partly for us it's about being able, in such a massive organisation, if you can call government that, which really is a whole lot of different businesses. Nobody knows what everybody else is doing and it's impossible to actually do that. So I think government is really trying to be more integrated in the way they work in the social impact space. They're trying very hard to pull the threads in where there are commonalities, and work out how to work together with the community, with business, to do that. But as you can understand there's such a broad range of work, that's really difficult, and you can understand the public saying, well it's all one government, why don't they know what they're doing?

And, you know, there's a great thing in that because sometimes we really don't know what the other hand is doing. But on the other part it's very difficult to do.

So I think some of the social impact from a policy perspective is how do we really encourage government to work in that way, and that's a role that Community Insights is hoping to support.

[Ruth] - And I think just on that, there's some neat examples of where policy is happening from the frontline up. For example, we're working with a group of government agencies in a regional city where they're looking to work together more effectively to support families with a particular need. And that has not come from above, it's really come from on the ground and what they're seeing in their daily work.

I think that that's something that we'll probably see more of in the future, and that is bottom up policy development.


Outside of the team and the work that you are doing, what inspiring projects or initiatives have you both come across recently, which are creating some great positive social change?

[Ruth] - I'm currently doing the Theory U massive online course, which I'm absolutely loving, and what's really struck me is the Scottish government have set up about a hundred labs and they've enabled as many staff of the Scottish government who are interested in completing U.lab to work together, to prototype new approaches to social change. So for those who don't know, Theory U is based in the idea of affecting transformational change through the transformation of self, and it's based on the idea that the effectiveness of any intervention is dependent on the interior condition of the intervener.

So it's really about doing that personal work and, I suppose, bringing that into your work. And so, I'm fascinated to see, from a government perspective, what that's going to enable them to achieve in Scotland. Certainly, I've read some examples of how it's already begun to change the way that they're connecting with community and business to work together for outcomes. So I guess it's early days, but I'm just fascinated that the government that has taken it on so wholeheartedly that the creators of the MOOC have actually created a separate piece for that government. So I think that's really inspiring leadership there.

[Suzi] - I think at a community level there's... really, we don't even get exposure to the amount of good work that people are doing. There's some really lovely work that's been done in Burke in New South Wales around a collective impact project, which was originally, and still is, about reducing youth crime. So that's been a lovely example of working with the Indigenous community, with police, with community, to really look at a complex problem.

And that's driven from the ground up in terms of the solutions. I guess at the very big level, the thing that I've been keeping an eye on, which has only just started, is the Obama Foundation. And, what's really interesting in that context is Obama's focus, now that he's left office, on individual and youth taking carriage of the leadership in communities to bring about transformation. And you know, that's a pretty powerful person to say it doesn't have to come from government, doesn't have to come from business, it can come from a collection of people together who see a need and work out ways to address it. So I think there's initiatives everywhere and they are inspiring people every day without being paid, doing enormous stuff to bring about social impact. We just want to harness it.

It's funny you mention Scotland too because a lot of the previous interviewees have spoken about Scotland being the leader in the social innovation space.

So to finish off, then, what books would you both recommend to the listeners?

[Suzi] - The one that's got my attention at the moment is, Eric Barker has just published a book called "Barking Up the Wrong Tree" and his book is really about everything you know about success is wrong, and he goes into the behavioural insights, studies, scientific evidence, for the things that we think are going to lead to success often don't. And so it's lots of little snippets, it's lots of little stories, and so I'm reading it in bits.

But it's also about challenging all of these really long-held views that success, which could be in social innovation/social impact, but really comes from that condition of the intervener. Which is what we know and what do we think internally that actually creates something in the world. And if we just challenge what we think it is in our own minds, what's the impact that that brings broadly?

[Ruth] - My lovely colleague Vivian actually plonked this book on my desk this week, so I haven't read very much of it. I'm not sure if I can actually recommend it, but I can definitely recommend the concept. It's a book called "Developmental Evaluation: Applying Complexity Concepts to Enhance Innovation and Use" by Michael Quinn Patton, who has done a lot of work around developmental evaluation.

We've spent a lot of time grappling with how to measure the effectiveness of the work that we do when it's iterative, and it's adaptive, and it's complex, and it's changing, and that's a really difficult space. And so developmental evaluation comes out of international development, and it seems to have some really key ingredients for us to consider in terms of what sort of data we might look to collect and how might do that, and it's a way at looking at evaluation that sits in messiness.


Initiatives, resources and people mentioned on the podcast


You can contact Suzi or Ruth on LinkedIn. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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