Developing public strategy through Design Thinking

How the Government Technical Advisory Centre (GTAC) used a by-human-for-human approach to develop and deliver better solutions to its clients and the citizens they serve. 

project overview

Design thinking has empathy at its core. This methodology puts the citizen – the ultimate “customer” – at the centre of the challenge, understanding the situation from their perspective and designing solutions that respond to their experiences and needs. Through a multi-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder participatory process, design thinking methodology aims to unlock insights and creative collaboration to develop innovative solutions.

CBPEP favours innovation and experimentation over traditional linear thinking, which allows for a creative and adaptive approach to meet the needs of its clients. Design thinking principles are at the core of CBPEP’s methodology.  

Collaborating with many stakeholders allows for multiple perspectives, ideations, and interpretations. The aim is to generate ideas rather than evaluate them, with a focus on moving beyond the obvious solutions. Design thinking emphasises action, followed by reflection. This involves a learning-by-doing approach to problem-solving, driven by quick iteration and rapid prototyping. Participants come up with multiple ideas, fail fast, learn from these failures and then quickly adapt or discard non-viable solutions.


More about the project

CBPEP not only draws on design thinking methodology for its projects, the principles are also rooted in the implementation of the CBPEP programme itself.  

“A lot of what we do is to show that the problem often looks different from the standpoint of the end user," says Glen Fisher, Team Leader at CBPEP. “You’ve got to design a solution from the standpoint of the end users and the problems that they experience.  I think that’s been quite an insight to see things from the standpoint of the citizen rather than from an institutional government space.  It’s about the ability to understand a problem, define a problem appropriately and develop appropriate solutions that work in a social and economic context.”

In the words of Michael Harris, Partner at Letsema Consulting: “I believe that an efficient, responsive public sector is predicated on a return to citizen-centric propositions. This is underpinned by aligned and effective operations, organised around clear accountability and executed by empowered and passionate people.”

Capacity building workshop for GTAC
GTAC’s aim was to improve its value proposition. “We thought about how we could unlock success by introducing tools that would allow the state to be more innovative,” says CBPEP Capacity Building Technical Advisor, Kathy Nicolaou-Manias. “One of our biggest issues was that we often misdiagnosed the problem, defining it in a way that we thought we knew what the problem was, without ever really understanding [it].” 

Building on its adaptive management and agile management styles, CBPEP, together with GTAC, considered a range of tools to address this challenge.

Design thinking was one of the tools CBPEP and GTAC adopted. The process began with a Strategic Review and Design Thinking Workshop, which used design thinking methodologies to answer the fundamental question: What must GTAC do to meet and exceed customer expectations and become an indispensable centre of excellence?

The workshop produced a strategic framework to align GTAC’s actions with its vision of becoming a customer-centric, federated and Treasury-aligned partner of choice for South African organs of state. This strategic framework provided the basis for redesigning GTAC’s business model, with a focus on customer-centricity, multi-stakeholder collaboration and rapid prototyping.  

“When we apply a design thinking approach to solving a particular problem, that introduces an empathy phase,” says Nicolaou-Manias. This kind of empathy allows policymakers to truly understand the needs of citizens and so develop citizen-centric solutions that respond to and meet those needs.

Design thinking training for Government
CBPEP collaborated with the University of Cape Town’s Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking, to build government capacity in design thinking. This training was offered to a range of government departments, including the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the Department of Small Business Development (DSBD), the Budget Office and the Presidency.

The key outcomes of this training included insight into human-centred problem solving, confidence in creative thinking, an ability to work in multidisciplinary and diverse teams, and an understanding of how to practically apply design thinking methodology in a wide range of settings.

project outputs

GTAC Strategic Plan 2020-2025

An outline of GTAC’s strategic focus and performance.


News and resources

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is an approach to understanding and solving complex problems. The Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town helps students and professionals develop a design thinking mindset.


Design thinking for the real world

In this article, the Hasso Plattner School of Design Thinking at the University of Cape Town shows how design thinking can help prepare graduates for the working world and policymakers for real economic recovery.

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