The session was a bit of an experiment to test an idea that emerged from putting a few pieces of my professional life together and seeing how they might connect. That meant it felt a bit scratchy and unfinished to me, which I’m going to console myself is a good thing for a workshop session at an event dedicated to pushing boundaries and asking questions,
These are the pieces.
The first is the rising interest in, and familiarity with, the world of design and design thinking in government.
I’ve written, with Dom Campbell from FutureGov, a chapter in a forthcoming book from the School of Government at Melbourne University that looks at this phenomenon from the perspective of its impact on talent and skills in the public service of the future.
What I observe is the rapid growth of the design thinking instinct in service design and service delivery reform, but less of an obvious impact on the more traditional world of policy making.
It’s common now to find government agencies and their favourite consultants and advisors reaching for the design toolkit of methods and techniques to improve service design and delivery. We’re getting more familiar with pictures of energetic groups of public servants clustered around walls festooned with rainbows of postIT notes and, for the more ambitious, 3D models of how they see future service delivery and impact for older people or children in foster care or ways to improve the reach and impact of services for Indigenous communities in remote and regional areas or whatever the topic might be.
The value of design – a focus on user experience, the use of personas (or, even more boldly, talking to real customers, service users, people in their homes and communities), prototyping, journey maps, empathy maps – seems increasingly to be the starting point for any self-respecting service reform process.
I think that is largely a good thing.
There’s always the risk, of course, that as an idea like design thinking becomes more flavoursome, its deeper potential for disruption and disconcerting insights about persistent undiscussables like tougher structural deformities and inequalities, the distribution of power and influence and the stubborn self-interest of the status quo are either ignored or missed. In that sense, design thinking risks becoming the legendary “lipstick on a pig”, a pretty distracting front-end process that squibs the unflinching questions that good designers, in my experience, always want to ask – why, why not, what if?
The second piece is the absence, by and large, of much of this design thinking ethic from the deep, mainstream world of policy making.
Think of these examples.
A state government wants to write a new child protection policy that completely shifts the emphasis away from “protection” and towards child and family thriving. Another area might be housing and homelessness, not from a service delivery perspective but to come up with new policy settings as the basis for a new approach.
What about something even more basic, something like a new defence strategy or a policy for engagement with Asia or writing a new policy approach for regional migration, asylum seekers and offshore processing?
In these cases, the policy instinct goes well beyond the need to shift modes and methods of delivering services or engaging immediately with people and users. The notion of “policy” here is the notion of stripping the paint, as it were, right back to the bare and basic material of policy making – clarifying purpose, intent, impact and the broad “direction of travel” that a government or an agency wants to adopt as a guide to the kind of future it wants to create or privilege.
If that is the task, how do the tools and methods and culture of design work in that context?
Even though it’s possible to find examples of people who talk and write about design and policy in the same sentence (Christian Bason has edited a whole book with both words on the cover – and it’s a very good book too and well worth a read; have a look too at this piece from Policy Lab’s Andrea Siodmok or this great series of blogs from UK civil servant Paul Maltby on the dialogue, or lack of it, between policy makers and digital and design experts) those who tend to see this kind of policy work as their domain of professional expertise and interest don’t tend to reach naturally for design and design thinking tools to help them do their work better.
The third area of interest for me reflects my role as a director of the Centre for Policy Development, a rising Australian values-driven and future focused independent policy think tank tackling some big issues in areas like sustainable economy, forced migration and refugees and the quality and effectiveness of government
This is our 10th anniversary year and we’re hosting a number of events over the next few months to celebrate. The theme is “can democracy deliver?”, a question whose salience is reinforced by mounting tangle of evidence about declining trust, institutional failure and a growing disaffection for some of the practices and reflexes of our democratic conversation.
The end of all that evidence seems to be the same. Can the instincts, practices and institutions of democratic governing and politics with which we’ve become both familiar and comfortable still do the job, if the job is defined as finding fair, sustainable and effective solutions to the complex risks and opportunities of a volatile, changing and increasingly digital world?
Putting those three interests together, the OpenState session posed this question – if we applied the tools, techniques and mindset of design and design thinking not just to service delivery reform, but to deep, mainstream policy making, would that make a big difference to the quality and effectiveness of democracy?
Another way of putting the question might be – if we made policy making more effective at finding fair, sustainable and effective solutions to the problems and opportunities we’re grappling with, would that improve our confidence in democracy?
Like the best workshops, in 90 minutes with about 70 people and, in this case, a lot of help from Dom Campbell, Chris Vanstone, the Chief Innovation Officer from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (on whose board I sit) and Sam Bucolo, recently the Professor of Design and Innovation at UTS, all we did was raise plenty of questions.
[Note: Sam was especially helpful in earlier conversations about his growing interest, from a design educator’s perspective especially, about the role of design for and in democracy. There are others of course who have been thinking about this for a while, including groups like DESIS. Sam’s observations about the dilemmas, and opportunities, for designers in and for better policy and democracy were very helpful. He also suggested framing some of the discussion in the work of Dave Snowden around complexity, especially the Cynefin framework, a suggestion I happily picked up for the session]
There were some tentative conclusions, but mostly questions.
These were some:
How do policy makers recognise not just the value, but the necessity of starting their work not with traditional research and analysis but with deep observation of the lives and experiences of people and communities likely to be most affected by their work?
If you’re going to write a new policy for housing and homelessness or regulating access to public land for commercial and recreational apiarists, why not start by spending a chunk of time with a notebook and some simple questions with homeless people or beekeepers? [Note – the apiarist example comes from a project, led by The Strategy Group, in which the NSW Department of Primary Industries and the Office of the Small Business Commissioner did exactly that – used design tools and methods for a regulatory design and policy project. And talking directly to beekeepers across NSW was exactly how they started the policy review process].
Another way of putting the same question is to ask how policy makers can make “experience” the primary lens through which they seek to apply their skills, deep expertise and often highly complex knowledge to the business of policy making and problem solving?
If the design instinct with any problem is to use a mix of prototyping and testing to rapidly test a range of ideas and possible solutions, after a period of reflection and learning about the context and contours of the problem, how does that work in policy making?
How can policy makers “launch to learn”, that is, use the exposure of ideas and proposals that are not finished or ‘ready’ to find out how to make them more robust and effective? Letting work out for public scrutiny before you feel it is finished or ready in order to get sometimes tough feedback that will make the end result stronger, more quickly, is a professionally and personally daunting way to work.
Is traditional policy making sometimes using design tools and techniques without knowing or without calling them that?
The assumption behind the session is that there is a useful and important distinction to be made between service delivery and policy making. Clearly, they are different but does it help to draw the distinction too starkly given the growing evidence that our best results emerge from understanding the connections between, and the mutual influence of, policy and delivery?
What are the implications for talent and culture, including leadership, in and across the public sector for a more robust embrace in policy making of design tools and techniques?
[Note – this reflects a bigger question about talent in the emerging and future public sector, which I think emerged from many of the sessions that day at OpenState; the strong sense I got was that the public sector faces something of a talent crisis, forged from a mix of issues including the lack of skills and capabilities in some areas and, in some cases, keeping the talent that is in the system either hidden or badly underutilised in ways that feed disaffection and disengagement; a topic for another time perhaps].
The conclusion is that I didn’t come to a conclusion and I suspect neither did the participants. But many seemed to learn something and went off pondering, which I am going to rack up as a small achievement.
What the conversation reinforced, for me at least, was the value of looking more closely at the links between the use of design for better policy making and the payoff that might bring for the quality of democracy,