Category: Permaculture

Permaculture Design in Local Government


One problem with trying to apply permaculture design to Local Government systems change, is that there are so many clients. When I was completing my Permaculture Design Certificate last year, most of the case studies we used had one main client. Plenty of stakeholders, yes. But one client. In some of the examples the client was ‘me’. Which made the consultation, observation, and specification of design a lot easier.

Shifting into a local government context:

  • Fact: Most systems changes or service redesigns start as ideas thought up by managers.
  • Fact: Most ideas being thought up at the moment in public services involve trying to save money.

So, who is the client here?

  • We have elected politicians; the leaders of the Council and decision makers… they provide vision and direction and are the client of any change process.
  • Senior execs and managers certainly are a client, working out how to execute the plans and decisions that the politicians make.
  • So are the teams that deliver the work, undergo and ultimately feel the effects of any systems change.
  • And so are the service users who really, REALLY are the most important client

The top down structure of that list is there to demonstrate a more subtle point; it’s arguable that politicians represent the desires and needs of the public / communities that elect them, therefore creating a kind of closed loop of Clients. But sometimes that loop is broken or the communication does not flow so well…

So from a permaculture design perspective when we would normally start by identifying who the client is before coming up with even the faintest notion of an idea for change, that in itself can be quite a challenge in Local Government. Not insurmountable but complex and requiring a lot of energy input at the beginning and again and again. It is a problem to solve: where to start with systems change?

In practice for me, this has meant moving through flowing spirals of work rather than linear project timelines. Survey and Analysis stages of a design need to be revisited over and over as new information and requirements are fed into the process. I think (and I am no expert) this has a parallel with AGILE more than PRINCE2 or MSP. It certainly feels a better fit from a permaculture perspective. The process is iterative. Even from a Requirements point of view (rather than client Requirements being very fixed and only alterable via the strictest of change control processes).

I guess the point of this post is to say that in local government there are Clients everywhere. As an officer trying to execute the plans or ideas, my job is to ensure that those client requirements are met to the best of my abilities. For me the starting point of any redesign should always be the end user of a service. They should provide the user experience (UX) desired or required in order to inform any process. Tension appears when the user experience doesn’t match the requirements of the decision makers.

Sometimes, conflict can arise out of there being just too many identifiable clients all with differing needs and desires and a difficulty in public services can come from a need to take more money and resources out of the system, which is exactly what a lot of our customers don’t want. The skill is in balancing all of these factors and creating the right conditions for change to happen – finding the opportunities between the gaps and at the edges…