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What does design do for policymakers?

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A photo of people discussing the design of public services.

The idea of ‘design for policy’ is having a moment. We can see signs of this from examples like the placement of professional designers in different policy contexts, the growing communities of practice and design-oriented labs, as well as research and toolkits arguing for the value of design for policy. As policymakers seek to grapple with the challenges of uncertainty, complexity and contestation, and a heightened urgency to act, there is growing demand for new ideas and approaches that can help to navigate this policy environment. But what is it that design offers to policymakers and other stakeholders?

In a recent contribution to the AHRC Design and Policy Network, Andrew Knight Head of the UK Policy Design Community, UK Civil Service suggested that design is a useful tool for people doing policy in testing and building public value, as well as helping people to navigate their roles and articulate the value they are trying to create, including to the wider public. For Andrew, design was able to act as a lubricant for working across silos and professions to address complex problems, allowing for a more holistic approach and people-centred or humanised approach to policy making.

But is it this simple? Is this the full scope of design for policy?

Does design also challenge policymaking?

The establishment of the UK Government Digital Service just over a decade ago, highlighted design as a means to centre ‘user needs’ and lived experiences within policy. However, designers face a dilemma when design approaches raise policy issues that users have that go beyond the scope of existing policy.

For example, using design to understand why mothers are not returning to the labour market might offer some insights into how ‘economically inactive’ people could be encouraged to get into work and so help address policy goals.  But it may also raise issues such as extending rights to flexible working, funding universal childcare or preventing workplace discrimination that were not within the scope of current policy.

Perhaps this is inevitable within the constraints of the policy process, but it may also suggest conflicting purposes of design for policy.

Is the purpose of design for policy clear?

We’ve been considering the purposes and values of design for policy with fresh eyes, as a group of academics from different disciplines. We decided to ask – what does the academic literature, in addition to emerging practice, tell us about the purposes that design might help policymakers to achieve? Is design a tool that can be easily integrated into policymaking, helping policymakers to achieve their existing goals? Is it a useful part of a policymakers’ repertoire that helps them to navigate and improvise in the face of an inherently ‘messy’ policy landscape? Or is it a force for a more systematic transformation of policymaking that revisits the core of what and who policymaking is for?

A new framework for understanding design for policy

We used the answers to these questions to start developing a framework outlining the different kinds of reasons for design, or purposes to which design for policy is put.  We argue that there are different ways design is used, each with a quite distinct flavour and sets of risks associated.  These can exist simultaneously, and might co-exist, but can often be in conflict with each other.  For example, the types can include: design as a tool; design as problem-solving; and design for different policy futures.

Design as a tool

Design has very often been used as a tool to support policymakers to achieve their existing policy objectives. The aim here is to mobilise design knowledge and expertise in a technical or procedural way in order to deliver on existing policy aims. Design can help to respond challenges such as complexity by, for example, creating a visual representation of where a system is going wrong or by bringing people’s direct experiences to life.

However, only seeing design as a set of tools, could be seen as missing the opportunity to engage with policy issues in a way that really gets to the heart of the problem and would make user-centred policy meaningful. As such, this logic may risk depoliticising design or ‘hollowing out’ its potential contribution.

Design as problem solving

A different perspective sees design as a practice that helps policymakers to solve problems or ‘muddle through’ an unfolding policymaking landscape. This approach builds on the perceived strengths of design in being responsive, iterative and flexible. For example, design may provide practical means for materialising ‘test and learn’ cheaply, quickly and collaboratively, alongside other forms of experimentation and innovation.

Again, this way of using for design is not without challenge. Seeing design as wholly improvised may limit it to supporting incremental and process-oriented change, without offering a longer-term and fundamental reckoning with a more user- or people-centred approach to policy.

Design for different policy futures

The third type of approach sees design for policy as challenging the ways we currently think about a policy issue entirely. This builds on the perceived strengths of design in making uncertainty tangible and to give space to disagreement between different policy interests, and in doing so open up different ways of thinking about the scope and intent of policy.

However, for some people involved in policy this view of the potential of design within policy can be quite tricky. The risks include overestimating the scope and misunderstanding the role of different stakeholders in policy, for example within the civil service, and the constraints posed by the political realities of policymaking.

So what does our framework show and how is it useful to policymakers?

Our intention in this collaborative work is to analyse the different uses and implications of design for policy. We suggest that these three approaches are distinct ways to see the role of design for policy.  They may be present simultaneously, in parallel or be more appropriate at different points within the policy process. But as well as complementing each other, they also reveal more significant tensions concerning the potential and practice of design within policy. Identifying and comparing these different perspectives allows us to recognise their limits and strengths. In doing so, we hope to open up new avenues for research and a heuristic for policymakers that will help to provoke discussion on how design can be used and applied within policy.

This post draws upon a paper authored by Catherine Durose, Lucy Kimbell, Ramia Mazé and Liz Richardson  ‘What does “design for policy” contribute to policy-making? Three logics’ to be presented at the Political Studies Association Annual Conference to be held at the University of Liverpool, 3-5 April 2023.

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