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 The structures of our bureaucracies are out of date and have barely changed in decades, as are the tools used to do the work.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.