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Four things I’ve learnt as a Policy Designer

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: PublicPolicyDesign, Thought leadership

A photo of people sat on the floor at an event about public services

I’ve been a Policy Designer in the Department for Education’s User-Centred Policy Design (UCPD) team for the last 18 months. During this time, I’ve worked on a number of knotty policy problems - from how to best utilise EdTech in classrooms, to reducing levels of school absence throughout Covid.  

Working in a government design lab for the first time has been a great challenge and a steep learning curve. As I transition into a new role, I’ve spent some time reflecting on my experiences, pulling out four main lessons. 

Build on traditional policymaking

We can talk about ‘User-Centred Policy Design’ like it’s a silver bullet, totally distinct from more ‘traditional’ policymaking. In reality, policymaking has always involved the user; teams engage stakeholder groups, canvas opinion of the sector and look at the data that’s available to make decisions. 

Of course, UCPD has a lot to offer on top of this. We need to clearly express how this extra value complements existing policymaking. For me, it’s about enabling policy teams to dig deeper into a problem and collaborating with users to reimagine the future.  

Find the right challenge

Whilst research is integral to our work, UCPD offers much more as part of a broader design process. However, colleagues sometimes refer to us as the ‘user research team’ and approach us to help them figure out what’s happening on the ground, rather than with a well-refined design brief.

This presents a challenge for UCPD teams aiming to create and test new policy ideas in a short space of time. In its purest form, our work should move beyond Discovery research into policy innovation and experimentation - but it can be difficult to do this in policy contexts where there’s a strong desire for research and less appetite for design. Investing time to find projects which are a good fit for UCPD is therefore critical.  

Empathise with policy colleagues 

As a team, we spend lots of time unearthing why users behave in a particular way, putting ourselves in their shoes and building empathy. UCPD projects should apply this way of thinking not only to our users, but to our policy colleagues too. 

Working in policy is hard. Time, resource and the scope to innovate can be massively constrained and decision making often involves a heavy dose of compromise. This has all been exacerbated by Covid-19.  

Understanding these pressures and finding middle ground is essential to delivering policy design projects. We have the headspace and specialist skills to grapple with complexity and think big - both luxuries in government. But, on the flipside, we need to meet colleagues in the middle, understand the pressures they are under and be willing to compromise when they bring constraints to the table.    

Celebrate the small victories

Compromise is a constant theme of my time in UCPD. Even when policy teams have real desire to be ‘user-led’, often the uncertainty, complexity and messiness of policymaking makes it hard to get stuff done, watering down your ability to change things. 

With this in mind, I’ve learnt to celebrate every triumph for my team. Influencing the thinking of a senior stakeholder in a ‘user-centred’ direction, or building a stronger evidence base that steers the department away from a decision are both victories for UCPD.  

Constraints in a policy area may mean it’s not possible to rewrite the rulebook, we can still meaningfully contribute to a discussion and champion the user; a good if not perfect outcome. 

I’d be interested to hear about how this chimes with the experience of others - leave a comment below. 

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  1. Comment by john mortimer posted on

    "policymaking has always involved the user; teams engage stakeholder groups, canvas opinion of the sector and look at the data that’s available to make decisions. "
    And I hope you are able to move away from this reductionist, analyst approach that has dogged policy making in the past. One of the keys to successful policy making, as expressed by systems hiking, is the real understanding of not just 'users' but the understanding of how the service you are creating policy for, works.
    Policy bods are almost always so distant from the reality, that they have no ability to understand this. And engaging with operational service managers is often confusing, as they often express the short term issues that they face today. In times of austerity, this is often very focused on internal issues, rather than the wider systemic understanding of prevention.
    I hope you manage to overcome this.

    • Replies to john mortimer>

      Comment by Matt Nicol posted on

      Hi John, thanks for responding to the piece! I think we are in agreement that policymaking needs more of a user-centric approach than it historically has done. The point I was trying to make in the paragraph you’ve highlighted is that policy makers feel like they already engage users (through the channels mentioned). With this in mind, we need to clearly explain what being ‘user-centred’ truly is - and how this brings a much better understanding to the table. Without this, there’s a risk that UCD gets overlooked as part of existing practice.

  2. Comment by Chris Davidson posted on

    Great insight Matt thank you for sharing.

    As a School Governor just knowing this type user centric thinking is growing up stream is insightful.

    It would be interesting to understand more about who the user is generally. Is it the end user of the policy such a child in a classroom or those implementing the policy such as the headteacher?

    Seeing the challenges a Headteacher faces to meet all government policies whilst progressing their vision from being close to the pupils - UCPD can only help better outcomes for all in the learning journey.

    Please keep it up and really appreciate the visibility, shedding light on what’s going on behind these policies we then have to implement.

    Well done


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