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Public admin explainer: How to use ‘design thinking’ to create better policy

24 January 2019

News and media


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Public policies and programs are intended to improve the lives of citizens, so how can we ensure that they are as well-designed as possible?

In a recent article in Policy Design and Practice, ANZSOG’s Professor Michael Mintrom and Madeline Thomas explore the neglected connection between design thinking and the successful commissioning of public services. 

Prof. Mintrom and Ms Thomas outline how design thinking can be used to contribute to more effective commissioning, concluding that paying greater attention to local collaboration and service enhancement through the application of design thinking can improve commissioning and contribute significantly to the pursuit of desired social and economic outcomes.

See below for more insights into design thinking from the article. 

Policy-making too removed from frontline delivery

As a general practice, policy design tends to occur far from where policy implementation happens.

Consequently, design is often removed from the gritty environments experienced daily by citizens and service managers as they translate policies into actions. Information relevant to policy design and the promotion of better outcomes does not automatically filter back to policymakers in ways that can inform their design work.

Policy is often shaped more by the structure and existing patterns of government than the needs of citizens. To remedy this, public managers should take concrete steps to ensure policy is designed with citizens’ interests in mind.

This is particularly vital when commissioning services from third-party providers, a vital tool in the public manager’s kitbag which focuses on the challenges of front-line delivery as opposed to focusing on policy or budgetary levers.

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Commissioning inevitably takes place under imperfect conditions, including information, time and resource constraints. Research shows it is most likely to be successful when a group of committed people come together under a common vision and work together to achieve it.

Commissioners also need to have a clear sense of the needs of a defined population and seek to procure services that match these needs.

Design thinking holds significant promise for improving commissioning to ensure policy investments generate expected social and economic returns. It can be usefully thought of as an

increasingly significant branch of evidence-based policy making.

Imagining the world from multiple perspectives

Design thinking encourages end-users, policy designers, central departments, and line agencies to work in a collaborative and iterative manner. 

The most important skill for a design thinker is to “imagine the world from multiple perspectives – those of colleagues, clients, end-users, and customers”. This is where greater empathy for different perspectives emerges.

Design thinking does not start with a presumption of a known answer or even a well-defined problem. Through iterative ethnographic methods, design thinking can reduce gaps between the goals of policymaking and the experiences of citizens as they interact with government-funded services.

This kind of design thinking can be pursued through a range of techniques:

Environment Scanning: This strategy explores present behaviours of individuals and groups in given localities and the outcomes resulting from those behaviours. It also seeks to identify trends that may influence future outcomes. Used appropriately, it creates an evidence-based method of gathering, synthesising, and interpreting information, which can shift the attention of an organisation towards new opportunities, threats, and potential blind spots.
Participant Observation: While environment scanning facilitates the broad exploration of an issue, observation requires engaging with people encountering specific problems. Participant observation can access tacit, otherwise, difficult-to-capture knowledge from subjects. This gives policy makers the ability to notice significant and seemingly insignificant details to gather information.
Open-to-Learning Conversation: There is a common tendency, not limited to the public sector, for service-producing organisations to limit choices for clients and make incremental adjustments. Problems are addressed using standard operating procedures that attempt to maintain predefined notions of order. Rather than just trying to find alternate strategies within an existing set of choices, policy makers should try and question the existing choice set. To achieve divergent thinking, it is important to have a diverse group of people involved in the process. Diverging thinking is less about analysing existing options and more about the creation of new options and questioning the fundamental basis of existing structures. 
Mapping: Mapping has long been used in policymaking to explore the links between mechanism design and implementation. A concept map can be used to develop a conceptual framework to guide evaluation or planning. Mapping allows the designer to visualise how things connect and spot emerging patterns. This can be done by putting one idea, or user, at the centre and then mapping how the other ideas and insights play off it. Journey mapping communicates the user experience from beginning to end and offers broader, sophisticated, and holistic knowledge of that experience. This can be a very powerful antidote to complacency and a good way to challenge conventional thinking.
Sensemaking: The sensemaking perspective suggests that in organisational settings, much latitude exists in the interpretation of situations and events. Sensemaking requires connections to be forged between seemingly unrelated issues through a process of selective pruning and visual organisation. Dialogue is critical to sensemaking. Once data and insights have been externalised – for example, in the form of post-it notes on the wall – designers can begin the more intellectual task of identifying explicit and implicit relationships.

Why we need to encourage design thinking

When organisations “buy” through commissioning, they will often be doing so because they conclude that they lack the in-house talent and resources required to perform the work themselves. While this conclusion may be justified, it can be accompanied by a fixed mindset that leaves many design decisions to the service provider.

The authors conclude that significant additional public value could be created through commissioners showing greater appetite to embrace design thinking and engage more closely with service providers, clients, and stakeholders in determining the precise nature of the services to be delivered.

Governments everywhere will always face pressures to provide better services to citizens while keeping taxes as low as possible. Given these dynamics, experiments with the governance and commissioning of service provision should be prioritised.