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Making way for design thinking

9 May 2023



Image of a team working on a project together

Public sector organisations are increasingly turning to design thinking to address societal issues and improve services. An article in Policy Design and Practice argues a focus on rationality, stability, and accountability in the public sector, impedes risk-taking and new ideas. The article presents a suite of strategies to support the application of public sector design thinking based on an analysis of 14 projects. This includes forming a design thinking alliance. 

The need for design thinking

In recent decades, public sector organisations have been confronted with an expansion and exacerbation of wicked problems such as climate change and inequality. These issues fundamentally challenge the way public organisations operate and conventional design approaches fall short. They are increasingly seen as too technocratic, reductionist, closed, incremental, and unresponsive. 

Instead, today’s wicked problems call for more innovative, open, collaborative and iterative, design approaches. As a result, design thinking is rapidly gaining interest. Design thinking refers to the way designers from disciplines such as graphic, product, and service design think and work in order to develop innovations that improve lives. 

Design thinking can enhance innovation, participation, and responsiveness (and thereby improve services and outcomes). For these reasons, public organisations across the globe are increasingly experimenting with design thinking. 

Applying design thinking

Design thinking is inherently open-ended, non-linear and exploratory. Effectively applying design thinking in the public sector can be problematic as it can be an awkward fit with established practices, structures and cultures. Table 1 illustrates the organisational tensions between conventional approaches and design thinking. 


  Conventional design  Design thinking 
Structure  Bureaucratic  Organic 
Culture  Hierarchy, stability, predictability  Autonomy, creativity, risk-taking 
Work  Standardisation  Evolutions 

Table 1: Comparison of organisational characteristics 

As can be seen, organisational characteristics often found in public organisations are fundamentally different from the characteristics associated with design thinking. These tensions can lead to resistance, rejection, and incompatibility. 

About the research

The aim of the research was to identify strategies to support the application of design thinking within a public sector context using a case study approach. Fourteen cases were pooled from the work of three design agencies in The Netherlands and Denmark – Twynstra Gudde, Ideate, and the Danish Design Center. Each agency is known as a forerunner in the field with extensive experience of applying design in a public sector context.  

The cases encompassed a variety of domains including agriculture, technology, climate, healthcare and infrastructure. All levels of government were represented.  

What the research found

The analysis revealed a variety of strategies to support the application of design thinking in a public sector context. Strategies were targeted at either the people that were part of the project group or at the people that were part of the policy context for the project. place. In other words, strategies were either internally or externally focused. In addition, the strategies aimed to establish favourable attitudes toward design thinking or to establish beneficial connections and interactions. 

The research identified four overarching strategic purposes to support the application of design thinking:  

  • Building confidence in design thinking 
  • Forming a design thinking alliance 
  • Generating support for design thinking 
  • Enhancing compatibility between the design project and the external context.  

A suite of actions were identified to support the overarching purposes, and these are outlined in Table 2.  

Building confidence in design thinking 
  • Creating a safe setting: fostering an atmosphere that is supportive, trusting, and open  
  • Providing clarity: explaining the thinking and doing behind design  
  • Showing the potential: illustrating what design thinking has to offer  
  • Offering guidance: providing help and advice to steer the project in a fruitful direction  
  • Giving training: providing opportunities to build design thinking capabilities alongside the project  
Forming a design thinking alliance 


  • Building relations: investing in strong interpersonal connections between the people involved  
  • Creating a group identity: establishing a sense of belonging to the group of people involved  
  • Promoting engagement: asking for a contribution from the people involved  
Generating support for design thinking 


  • Showing progress: presenting intermediate results  
  • Looking for traction: taking the course that generates enthusiasm  
  • Producing attractive work: devoting efforts to deliver appealing (intermediate) results  
  • Creating visibility: publicly showcasing the design thinking work  
  • Cultivating empathy: establishing an understanding of the feelings and perspectives of the people addressed by the project  
  • Reducing liabilities: lowering the threshold for taking part in, as well as leaving the project  
Enhancing compatibility between the design project and the external context 
  • Seeking alignment: adjusting the design thinking approach to the context within which it is applied  
  • Boundary spanning: superseding boundaries between the project and the client and stakeholder organizations  
  • Bypassing existing structures: steering clear of constraining organisational structures and processes  
  • Flying under the radar: keeping the project out of sight of decisive actors 

Table 2:  An overview of different strategies to support the application of design in a public sector context. 

The bottom line

The research reinforces the view that additional efforts are required to effectively apply design thinking in the public sector. Issues with applying design thinking arise in the social interactions between the people directly or indirectly involved. To be effective, practitioners need to make these interactions productive by fostering favourable attitudes toward design thinking and establishing beneficial relations. This social side of applying design thinking in the public sector is often overlooked. 

To build confidence, form an alliance, generate support, and enhance compatibility, the public sector designer needs to perform the roles of facilitator, coalition builder, lobbyist and entrepreneur. Correspondingly, participants from the client or stakeholder organisation need to adopt the roles of visionary, collaborator, ambassador and boundary spanner. 

Want to read more? 

Making way for design thinking in the public sector: a taxonomy of strategiesGeert Brinkman, Arwin van Buuren, William Voorberg and Mieke van der Bijl-Brouwer, Policy Design and Practice, April 2023 

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Published Date: 9 May 2023