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Using co-design in Defence’s response to Australia’s Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicides

Content warning

The following case study contains references to death, trauma and suicide. Reader discretion is advised, and we encourage you to explore the below support resources should you require them.

The challenge

The Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide was established in 2021 with a mission - to investigate and address the devastatingly high rates of Defence and Veteran suicides in Australia. The Commission's findings were alarming: a lack of transparency and clarity around how personal information was stored, shared, and released by the Department of Defence and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs was causing significant emotional distress to those seeking information, closure and understanding about their own service, or their loved ones' service and deaths.

For ex-serving, current serving ADF members, and their families, having access to personal information and documents is not just important - it's crucial. It can be an important step in the healing process, allowing them to understand the circumstances surrounding their service and any incidents that may have occurred. But the existing system was complex, convoluted, and confusing. Accessing personal information was a daunting task, and even when information was released, it was often heavily redacted, leaving those seeking answers with more questions than answers.

The emotional stakes were high for all, and particularly relevant to the Royal Commission were family members seeking information about their loved ones they had lost to suicide. The lack of clarity and a time-consuming, confusing process fostered distrust and compounded their grief.

In response to five of the Commission’s recommendations outlined in its August 2022 interim report, The Customer Experience Company worked with the Department of Defence and Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) to co-design the experience of accessing personal information from the Departments with current serving ADF members, ex-serving members, their families and representatives.

Improved access to personal information held by the Department of Defence and DVA is a step towards healing and closure for those affected. It would ensure that ex-serving members and their families have the information they need to make informed decisions about their health and wellbeing and easy access to appropriate support services, in a way that reduced suffering and alleviate the emotional and administrative burden of those seeking answers.

The situation

The approach

The research

Co-design was core to our approach to designing a single point of access experience for current, ex-serving members and families of the Australian Defence Force to access their personal information.

We heard first-hand stories and experiences from nearly 100 current members, ex-serving members and their families which provided a holistic view of the end-to-end process of accessing information. These stories were paramount in making the accessing information experience trauma-informed, ensuring that participants felt safe, heard, and valued throughout. 

Trauma-informed design processes meant that we acknowledged the prevalence of trauma amongst the Defence community that could impact their needs, experiences, and perspectives.

Workshops fostered safe spaces for people to be vulnerable, often sharing their trauma, grief, and pain. We made sure that the people we were designing for were at the centre of our process; transparent, simple, and by giving people the power to choose how they interacted with us.

These workshops resulted in key insights we kept core to designing the new accessing information experience.

The findings

The solution

Through a collaborative effort, we co-designed concepts with stakeholders at Defence and DVA, incorporating the key insights generated from workshops with members and their families. We prioritised them based on impact and value they would deliver to serving and ex-serving members and their families, alongside a number of other variables.

We tested these concepts extensively, including website design mockups, storyboards of the new service, and prototyped education materials, returning to the same group of participants for feedback.

This approach made sure that the design process was inclusive and empowering for members, ex-serving members, their families and representatives, and that we recognized the unique needs and perspectives of these individuals and their families in providing their voices in our design process.

Our holistic approach, which considered the entire experience rather than isolated aspects, led to the Department of Defence creating and implementing an entirely new business directorate to handle personal information requests. This new unit would provide a simple, streamlined, and easy single point of access for requesting personal information, reducing customer effort by 47% and enhancing consistency and continuity by up to 61% (based on testing estimation results). 

It was important in designing this directorate to be trauma-responsive, catering to the varying needs of its users. We embedded principles of transparency, simplicity, choice, and empathy across the holistic design of the service, ensuring that information access requests are transferred across business areas and between Defence and DVA, so participants don't have to repeat information.

Our designs included varied channels for individuals to access information, providing them with choices in how they engaged, including options for more and fewer touchpoints, varying channels, detailed information, and high-level overviews. We created communication materials that were simple and clear, and an overarching communication toolkit that will provide an enduring guiding north star for customer-centricity that Defence can leverage to ensure their future education materials and artefacts deliver the most value.

Foundations of new policies were laid that ensured consistency and accountability of the Department in releasing and redacting information. We defined the ideal future state beyond March 2023 and created plans for it to be realised, ensuring desirability was kept at the heart as the designs were improved before and after implementation.

Through our inclusive and empowering design process, the experience of those seeking personal information from the Department of Defence and DVA has been transformed to truly meet the needs of its users, and we are proud to have played a part in this transformational change.

In 2023, it was awarded a prestigious Good Design Award Winner Accolade in the Digital Design category in recognition for outstanding design and innovation.

The Good Design Awards Jury commented: “This platform uses co-design to help the Department of Defence navigate the complexities of caring for ex-serving members. The Jury commends the design team for this outstanding project and for setting the bar for good design in this category. Well done.”

The impact

Australian Department of Defence

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