Nourhan Hegazy
Author - Nourhan Hegazy

This article shows how a systemic design approach was used to support the implementation of a policy direction that touches multiple services and organisations. It discusses how a team of designers and policy makers mobilised services to action through breaking silos, building empathy and developing a community of practice.

Connecting policy with service

As society evolves, new approaches are being adopted by governments to meet needs. In 2018, the Canadian federal government introduced a “Policy Direction to Modernize Sex and Gender Information Practices” that aims to promote the respect, inclusion and personal safety of transgender, non-binary and two-spirit people. This policy direction acts as a framework to align federal public services on inclusive practices and asks them to rethink how and why they collect and display sex and gender information.

The policy direction was developed over the course of two years in collaboration with many organisations, gender-diverse communities and various other stakeholders. It impacts IT systems, business processes and regulations, but most importantly, it is about ensuring that policies and services are inclusive of all gender identities. It introduces a third gender identifier, ‘X’, when sex and/or gender information is displayed.

While some people may simply check the “M” or the “F” when asked about their sex or gender, for many gender-diverse individuals, that is not the case. According to a study by Trans PULSE 1, trans people face issues with identity documents that don’t reflect their lived gender, in addition to being more vulnerable to discrimination and marginalisation (Bauer G. R. & Scheim A. I., 2014).

Sex and gender information is used by the government for many reasons, such as for analysing demographics, delivering benefits and issuing identity documents such as passports. Therefore, implementation is multi-faceted; there are impacts on many service touchpoints such as forms, correspondence, web content and identification. Aligning services through the policy direction aimed to ensure a consistent and inclusive experience to minimise service disruptions and systemic biases.


Our small team of designers and policy-makers was given a time-limited mandate to incubate this policy’s implementation across 75+ organisations. We knew that a different approach was needed to mobilise teams to action, given this issue’s complexity. We needed an approach that could both build empathy with gender-diverse communities, as well as break silos between stakeholders to achieve holistic and practical outcomes. 

Our team developed many tools and supports to socialise the issue and enable implementation for all organisations. However, we also recognised a need to build service design capacity for key organisations and services that have the most volume and impact on people. The following case study will focus on how we mobilised key services to action through a series of systemic design workshops.

Mobilising key services through life course themes 

We began by looking at the federal government service ecosystem to understand which services have the biggest volume and impact. Key services that make up the majority of client touchpoints with the federal government were identified. A series of systemic design workshops brought these services together under ‘life course’ themes, such as joining the military, immigrating and retiring. 

This made it possible to consider the end-to-end journey of an individual as they move through multiple services across the federal continuum. Rather than addressing services in silos, life course themes ensured that services consider how they impact people collectively. It allowed stakeholders to see how sex and gender data is shared between stakeholders and is in a constant state of flux with people’s evolving gender identity. 

To recruit key public service stakeholders, we connected with departmental representatives who had participated in the policy development stage. This was useful, given these contacts had knowledge of the policy, its drivers and its complexity to implement. They provided support to identify diverse stakeholders to join our workshop. Within nine months, workshops mobilised over 20 departments, 40 services, 100 public servants and 30 executive leaders. 

Brainstorming ideas on napkins supported more divergent thinking --
Brainstorming ideas on napkins supported more divergent thinking

Shifting mindsets through storytelling and sense-making

Over the course of two days, workshop participants engaged in deep and meaningful dialogues, as well as mapped challenges and opportunities for policy implementation. Workshop capacity was limited to 14 public servants to ensure intimate and effective conversations. At the end of the second day, teams pitched ideas to a leadership panel. Below are some of the methods used by our team to guide public servants through a systemic design process.

Sharing stories together

Engaging in dialogue with gender-diverse communities was key to understanding how the policy impacts people and why building inclusive services is so important. This was a transformational part of the workshop because for many participants in the room, it was their first time hearing first-hand experiences from trans, non-binary, two-spirt and gender-fluid individuals. To create a safe and welcoming environment, facilitators met with ‘Inclusive Dialogue’ guests prior to the workshop to answer questions and consider any needs they may have. 

Seating was arranged in a circle and guests were given the floor to share their story, before opening the dialogue for questions. We tried our best to include more than one guest in our dialogue to share different perspectives, as well as to avoid putting the spotlight on an individual. The session was hosted after a lunch break where participants and dialogue guests had a chance to meet informally over a meal.

Before the ‘Inclusive Dialogue’, we had a chance to hear from participants where they see challenges, opportunities and interdependencies for implementation. Giving participants the chance to share their frustrations before the ‘Inclusive Dialogue’ was key to ensuring participants felt heard and were ready to listen to guests with an open mind. 

Visualising what we heard

Mapping exercises were introduced to support participants in making sense of what they learned from stories shared throughout the day. A hybrid of design and systems thinking tools were used to map both client needs, as well as interdependencies. For example, personas and journey maps helped to identify client pain-points, while influence maps helped to identify key actors in the system and how they influence one another. By the end of the first day, participants had a chance to vote on the key challenges that were the most crucial to focus on. 

Letting go of the expert hat

Three key challenges were identified, and interdisciplinary teams were formed. Participants were encouraged to let go of their ‘expert hats’ by joining a challenge they were less familiar with. A series of brainstorming exercises were introduced to encourage divergence and play, such as using analogies, drawing on napkins and referring to cards with idea prompts. 

The workshops concluded with participants pitching ideas to a leadership panel. The opportunity to present to a leadership panel was important, because participants had a chance to hear feedback directly on what they need to consider as they move forward with implementation. Leaders also had a chance to be exposed to this approach and their participation gave legitimacy to the workshops.

Fostering a community of practice

After the workshop, participants expressed a desire to connect with other workshop participants. They were very curious about other workshops and what challenges other services were facing. Our gender-diverse guests were also eager to stay involved in the work and learn about the progress departments were making. Therefore, we launched a community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991)2 to continue connecting people and sustain implementation. 

A toolkit that shares methods and findings from our nine workshops is in development and aims to empower participants to become ambassadors of the policy direction in their own organisations. Our hope is that this becomes a self-sustaining, dedicated community that continues to implement the policy direction long after our team ceases to exist.


1 Trans PULSE is a research study of social determinants of health among trans (transgender, transitioned) people in the province of Ontario, Canada.

2 Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger describe a community of practice as a group of people who have a shared practice and engage regularly to advance it.


Government of Canada (2018) Modernizing the Government of Canada's Sex and Gender Information Practices: summary report. retrieved from:

Bauer G. R. & Scheim A. I. (2014) Transgender People in Ontario, Canada: Statistics from the Trans PULSE Project to Inform Human Rights Policy. Retrieved from:

 Lave J. & Wenger E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press. 

This article by Nourhan Hegazy and Kara Waites is part of Touchpoint Vol. 12 No. 2 - Service Design and Systems Thinking. Discover the full list of articles of this Touchpoint issue to get a sneak peek at more fascinating articles! Touchpoint is available to purchase in print and digital format.


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