I recently attended an event at the Danish Embassy on “Designing Policy” that was organised by the Associate Parliamentary Design & Innovation Group. The event was to address the challenge of designing policy while highlighting the opportunities by learning from the experience of MindLab in Denmark. If you don’t already know, Mindlab are a cross-ministerial innovation unit that use innovation and design methods to improve the development and delivery of policies in Denmark.
Experiences were shared by Christian Bason, Director of Innovation at Mindlab and there were responses from a panel of experts from design and policy such as Jill Rutter of the Institute for Government, Lucy Kimbell of the Young Foundation, Aviv Katz of the Innovation Unit, Ailbhe McNabola of the Design Council and Richard Harries of the Department for Communities Local Government.
The examples from Mindlab were inspiring but from a design perspective they are common sense. Lots of designers would be asking why don’t we already use user-centric methods, micro-macro ethnography, co-design and co-production when developing policy? Surely we should better understand the communities and people we are developing policies for by exploring, experimenting, protoyping, failing, testing and improving continuously?
Yes!! would be my answer but while these practices may seem obvious to some designers we need to remember that common sense is the least common sense. It was useful to have an expert panel to raise some of the key challenges from the policy community. Richard Harries of the Department for Communities Local Government raised some of the realities of policy making in the current climate e.g. the relationship between the civil service and ministers when developing policy. Designers will need to be more mindful and empathetic towards people like Richard if they want to enter the policy space.
Thankfully Lucy Kimble also highlighted the competency gap. One of the challenges we face is that most designers don’t understand policy and many policy makers don’t understand design. An obvious solution is to build new training courses or new curricula on designing policy but I don’t think that will really work. It would be much better to create spaces for experimentation where policy makers and designers collaborate on developing policy and policy interventions. There are some existing platforms for this already in the UK – e.g. APDIG, Innovation Unit etc.
One of the issues I felt wasn’t clarified during the event was the difference between designing policy and design policy interventions. As the discussion moves forward there needs to be more clarity on this. In my view, many of the examples from MindLab were policy interventions as opposed to policies. This is especially important as the discussions on an EU design policy are starting to take shape.
One of my reasons for attending was because some of my current research is developing evidence to support environmental policy development while also designing interventions to delivery on these policies. From experience, I can see how in some policy areas it is difficult to take a designerly approach. I don’t have all the answers to why but there is lots to be said for our current understanding of the separations between the public sector, private sectors and the public.
I am also interested in the design of policy interventions because I am putting the final touches to my PhD which explores policy interventions for ecodesign in industry. In my PhD I specifically address interventions that are delivered by ‘intermediary organisations’ as opposed to central government. I aim to explore the failure of previous interventions and gain insights into the logic behind the interventions i.e. how the interventions are designed and delivered. The thesis raises lots of questions on the need for systems thinking and new ways of thinking about policy interventions but I am certain to take forward the issues it raises we need designerly ways of developing policy and interventions.
My only gripe about the event is that every person on the panel was interesting and we could have had an entire day of listening to and debating their perspectives. I look forward to seeing how the Design Commission takes forward their current research on design in the public sector.Tweet