Design thinking: helping put the 'public' in public policy

Too often, public policies are designed without… the public. But there's a perfect set of tools to address this. By Eden Baker.

When public policy is developed without the public, we risk ending up with a heap of policies that don’t actually meet the needs of the people they impact (ahem, the recent My Health Record debacle, the Centrelink Robo-Debt scandal, ongoing housing policies).

At Portable, we think that human-centred design provides us with the perfect tools to address this — pushing us to meaningfully engage with real people to create policies and services they want and need.

First things first, what does policy mean?

Policy is the way that governments decide how to respond to a particular problem or meet a particular goal. One way of thinking about it is that public policy is the way governments decide how to spend taxpayer money (aka your money).

For example, the government decides all coffee should be free (policy) so it sets up coffee carts and hires barristers across the country (service delivery).

These should be positive, but they aren’t always. And even when they are well intentioned they can have unintended negative consequences.

Right, but how does policy relate to design?

Policy development is essentially a design process. And yet, it is rarely spoken about in design terms.

At its heart, the policy cycle follows similar steps to the design thinking framework: identify a problem, understand it, come up with possible solutions and then try them out. What design thinking adds, however, is an emphasis on empathising with people and a willingness to test ideas, fail and iterate.

Design thinking is about understanding the people affected, seeking their feedback and then incorporating it back into design. It’s also about jumping into a project with questions, rather than solutions, and checking your assumptions as you go.

I’m listening… So what are the benefits of using design in policy?

Design thinking tools, like co-design, user testing and rapid prototyping, provide policymakers with valuable ways to come up with human-centred, rather than system-led, policies.

For example, in co-design, people with a lived experience of the relevant issue are active participants throughout the policy development process. Having a lived experience is treated as a type of expertise —shifting the role of policymakers from experts who develop their own ideas, to facilitators who work with members of the public to extract theirs.

Similarly, rapid prototyping and testing allow policymakers test ideas with relevant people before committing thousands, if not millions (gulp), to dud projects.

Sounds promising. What does this look like in practice?

Design thinking isn’t new but it’s only been embraced by policy professionals relatively recently.

In Victoria, co-design is central to the Government’s 10-year plan to address family violence. It has been integral to the design and implementation of the Support and Safety Hubs, in a bid to ensure these hubs respond to the needs of victims of family violence.

The establishment of the Victim Survivors’ Advisory Council further signals the government’s commitment to ensuring their family violence reforms are more human-centred. It’s too early to tell whether this approach will improve long-term outcomes but it’s a promising start.

Further afield, the Auckland Co-Design Lab in New Zealand, thePublic Policy Lab in New York and the Policy Lab in the UK are doing really interesting work to bring design and public policy together.

Sure, now give me the downsides

Probably the biggest challenge — and something we’ve seen first hand — is the clash of cultures that can happen when you combine a fast-moving, innovative approach with the risk-averse culture often seen in the public sector. There can be political motivations and priorities lurking behind the scenes too.

Also, given that the use of tools like co-design in the public sector is still quite new there’s not much data to actually back it up. Watch this space.

Neither of these are reasons not to give it a go though. If you’re unsure where to start, download a copy of our report ‘Hacking the Bureaucracy’ to learn more about innovation in the public sector.

‍I’m busy, give me the TL;DR version

Design thinking puts people at the centre of policy development, helping to create policies that they actually want and need. Sounds good, huh?

Keen to find out more? Read our case studies about the Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science to see how we’ve used design thinking to inform policy and service design.

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