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Design thinking in policymaking processes: Opportunities and challenges

27 July 2016

News and media


What does design thinking have to offer policy development? ANZSOG early career researcher Jo Luetjens writes about her latest publication with Professor Michael Mintrom.

The theory and practice of public administration is increasingly concerned with the role of the citizen. Scholars and commentators have pointed to a disconnect between what governments do and what citizens want and expect from government. In complex systems, the best of intentions often have unintended consequences. This issue is not exclusive to Australia. In an era of ‘wicked’ problems and increasing complexity and uncertainty, governments around the world are seeking new approaches to understanding policy problems, developing solutions, and improving decision-making.

Design thinking offers a powerful way to navigate and make sense of this complexity. While the development of policy constitutes a design activity, it is rarely spoken about in design terms. This is something that Professor Michael Mintrom and I seek to remedy in our latest publication in the Australian Journal of Public Administration. We define design thinking as a problem solving approach characterised by curiosity and empathy which seeks to interpret how target populations engage with their world.

Design thinking is not entirely new. Elements have long been applied in social science research and in public administration. Our article presents examples of design thinking in both Australia and New Zealand over the past 10-15 years. For example, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) was tasked by the South Australian Government to assist families experiencing difficulty. Using design thinking strategies, such as Open-To-Learning Conversations, TACSI developed the Family by Family program by explicitly asking people experiencing difficulties: ‘How can a new service enable more families to thrive and fewer to come into contact with crisis services?’ The model puts families at the centre and offers something that professional services cannot: human connections and relationships.

At present, design thinking in the public sector is varied and scattered. It is being pursued in one way or another across a range of government agencies. This can lead to implementing design thinking for the wrong reasons, or with unrealistic expectations. Through these examples, Professor Mintrom and I demonstrate what works and why. We offer lessons for those seeking to integrate design thinking into policy development.

 Click here to view the abstract page or contact the authors for more information.