For the past few months, I’ve been working with and speaking to policy teams responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the fast-paced chaos of crisis response, I’ve been struck by how little some policy teams understand the language of design. It’s also become clear that design thinkers seasoned in government work can still struggle to demonstrate the value of our approach to stretched policy teams.

Despite the increase of policy labs and designers in digital and delivery teams, design is far from being a mainstream tool in policy development.

Design and policy

Today, organisations delivering recognised services are far more advanced in the application of design thinking than policy teams. This gap makes some sense, but people have been writing about the applications of design thinking in policymaking for almost forty years, and the love-affair of design and policy is thriving in the realm of academic literature (and some pockets of excellence).

The idea that policymaking could be thought of as a service, and policy teams as organisations in desperate need of design, still comes across as a bit “touchy-feely” when policymakers start ranking priorities. In policy briefs, for the most part, quantitative research still reigns supreme.

Policymakers today are people who have lived out their careers in stretched teams. Triple the workload and half the time to get life-changing policies made at pace. Trying to reach solutions that are pivoted and pulled on the whims of Ministers and their advisors. Ideally, policy teams would have all the capability, tools and resources they need to create forward-thinking, evidence-based policies that are fit for the context. But our public institutions have been systematically gutted, and we do not live in that world.

Why policymakers should be using design thinking

This is really simple. The policies we make need to meet the needs of the citizens and organisations they affect, as well as the desires of decision-makers. Design thinking helps identify those needs and make sense of the systems in which they exist. It also helps us design solutions that best meet the needs in those systems, which is a good portion of the recipe for a quality policy recommendation.

The process of policymaking itself, as well as the teams and organisations that deliver the process, can always be improved through design. The structures of our bureaucracies are out of date and have barely changed in decades, as are the tools used to do the work. If you design your team and organisation well, it will be more efficient and effective with limited resources.

We don’t have time for a luxurious discovery of needs or time to talk to people. Can design actually help?

The right amount of design thinking up-front can save time and get you a better outcome. The policy teams I’ve worked with usually approach problems using some version of this process:

  1. receive direction from above
  2. desktop research to understand the problem
  3. identify crucial stakeholders and their positions
  4. if there are existing solutions to match what the minister/exec wants, assess their political and practical risk
  5. find evidence to back the chosen solution
  6. where there are numbers, use them
  7. send the brief to be edited, changed and approved without much dialogue
  8. policy

At pace, you might skip from 1 to 4. And we’re seeing this a bit in the policy response to COVID-19. The greatest defence of this is pragmatism and pace, as no one can afford a long discovery when the problem needed to be solved yesterday. Unfortunately, without spending systematic time on stages 2 to 6 (which in design speak would be good problem definition, user research, ideation and prioritisation) the jump from 6 to 7 can be painful and often takes longer than you expect.

In a crisis, pragmatism and solutions that are “good enough” can be really important. But, being pragmatic can often lead to the recommendation of off-the-shelf solutions. The shinier the solution and the slicker the offer, the more likely it is to be recommended by a tired, overworked policy team who don’t understand the problem they’re trying to solve.

What can designers do to get the message across?

Jargon is the enemy. And anyone wanting a human-centred approach from organisations with an existential imperative to be responsive to top-down decision-making, needs to be a little more creative than screaming “what about the users?” Policymakers generally think in terms of stakeholders, media, the general public, groups, advocates, members, citizens, decision-makers, committees, etc. We need to be better at explaining how design can help policy meet the needs of whoever really matters.

Some lessons to keep re-learning, again and again, are to:

  • show you can beat a deadline
  • be opportunistic and demonstrate value fast
  • don’t just keep repeating “user needs” and hope the penny will drop
  • synthesise fast and show, show, show
  • get good at explaining why you need to test something, and how you can do it quickly
  • expose the risks of the bad assumptions policy teams see as safe
  • design artefacts for policymakers, not other designers

We need to do a better job as design thinkers and reformers to show that design provides invaluable tools. Particularly in a world that keeps proving the statement that “the only certainty is uncertainty” where governments keep asking policymakers to do more with less.

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