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Putting design front and centre

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

A person participating in a local event about public services

I got an invitation to connect with somebody the other day, and it turned out we used to work together in the Department for Education. She's working as a designer who started in digital delivery and is now in policy design.

She thinks it's getting harder and harder to place the user at the centre of what we do, which was the theme that I was most interested in when I was Permanent Secretary. She wonders if she is too idealistic (she's too polite to say that maybe I'm too idealistic as well).

This blog post provides an opportunity to offer a response about whether it’s possible to take a more user-centred approach to policymaking.

Our role in making sense of the world

This is difficult stuff, after all it's a democracy and we work for politicians. They're the ones who decide on the policies that we develop. But it is our job, nevertheless, to understand system and the users of policies and services as best we possibly can – whether they are children, teachers, social workers or others – and to think about what they need in the context of the overall political direction that ministers are setting for us.

I don't think we do that as well as we might. Even within the constraints that we face, I do think there are a couple of things we could do across the Civil Service to get significantly better: external challenge (because policymakers currently operate in a closed world), and training (because this way of working is a skill).

A different attitude to understanding the public

My life as a policymaker in local government was very different from my life as a policymaker in central government. In local government, my advice was typically offered in public. I was expected to go along to meetings with council tenants and ask them what they thought of the housing repair service, for example - or I was expected to go along and talk to pupils and parents and teachers in schools - and then advise the elected local politicians accordingly. And so I did, and that was seen as part of the job.

Then I joined the Civil Service and suddenly discover that it wasn’t part of the job. It wasn't what I was expected to do.

Policymaking behind closed doors

The trouble with the world of Whitehall is that our policymaking takes place behind closed doors.

I worked with colleagues during the pandemic crisis who felt unsure about talking directly to carers in children’s homes because they thought their seniors or their ministers probably wouldn’t want them to.

Officials often feel it is not safe to speak to users of policies or services and feel nervous about doing so, not least as they might find it uncomfortable to be defending the government’s position on something. Of course, there are occasions where ministers want to engage the public and ask for a sort of consultation process. But without this explicit instruction, officials feel like they are taking a risk.

So meetings do literally take place behind closed doors and then official advice is kept secret for 20 years. It's a completely opaque system and it's a problem because it invites the view that policy is of no concern to the public …and it can't be of any concern to them because they're not in the room.

Consequently, officials don’t really understand the needs of our users and certainly do not prioritise them. This is a cause of a lot of poor advice.

Understand what the public need

The government is no more than a collective decision-making machine. It's done so on behalf of the public. The purpose of government is to enable citizens to collectively get a better deal.

So we should ask what the public think… What do they want? What do they know?

To take a straight-forward example from the world of education: very large numbers of young people have not gone back to school since COVID. Government can issue all the directives it wants, and it can hold schools accountable in whatever ways it wants. But if you're going to do anything, as opposed to just announce something, then you need to understand what's actually going on. The most interesting questions are: why aren’t children going to school and which ones? What do their parents or carers think? What's the context? Yes, there's lots of existing data, but nothing that beats an actual conversation.

Design practice offers Civil Service a systematic way of making sense of the world as it really is, and responding to it in a meaningful way.

Invest in technical research and design skills

There are lots of skills involved in research and design like the methods of enquiry for engaging with the public to understand what specific groups of citizens need. We should invest in the capability of those technical experts.

But for others in government, I would say that the mindset is most important. Is the first question you ask yourself, ‘I wonder what users think?’ Or is your first question, ‘I wonder what the Minister wants?’

Improve policymaking practice

The Policy Profession standards are pretty good. I don't think we need a new approach to the standards in principle. But I do think there is a big gap between the standards and what people do in practice.

The theory is that policymakers should be gathering evidence and considering outcomes, and all the other good things in the standards. But in my experience, the work of the policy professional is far too weighted to just one dimension of the standards: what they think the minister wants to hear.

There should be far more emphasis on subject matter and technical expertise. This would benefit ministers too because they would get much more well-informed advice.

Ministers need advice with more depth

The Secretary of State and ministers spend more time talking to members of the public about their responsibilities than civil servants do. But that doesn't seem to me to be a reason for us not to do so as well.

If you become the Secretary of State for education (for example), you typically don't know anything about education other than your own experience, and suddenly you're responsible for, well, everyone’s education. The only way for such a system to work is if the civil servants working for you have got a lot of expertise in the subject. As a new minister you can triangulate this official advice with the conversations with the public in your constituency surgery, for example.

But in my experience, ministers are normally rather disappointed when they ask to have a conversation with the relevant policy team and find the officials don't actually know nearly as much as they might have imagined: particularly the more senior ones.

You wonder, what it is that got these people promoted? You know it is clearly not their expertise in the subject matter. It’s not necessarily even their managerial experience. What's got them promoted, more than anything else, is their ability to sound convincing. This is a very odd notion indeed, and it doesn't serve the minister well at all.

Empower multidisciplinary teams

Tackling any complicated challenge requires a combination of skills and it's very unlikely that you'll find all those in one person. Therefore, you'll need to gather a team of people that bring different things to the party. That's the notion of multidisciplinary team, and it's uncontroversial.

However, if you're not careful, it reinforces the notion of policymakers as generalists who don’t know anything about the issue. They are simply convening the experts (e.g. the programme manager, data analyst, commercial manager, lawyer) and reporting upwards. Some might argue there's nothing wrong with that, or you might instead argue ‘why don't we cut out the middleman? What's wrong with the team of people that doesn't involve a generalist? It’s simply a team of people with relevant skills and knowledge. Between them they work out how best it to report it up to ministers; and maybe the best person to speak to the minister is the person with the actual delivery experience. Why do you need a separate spokesperson for them?

I remember inheriting an apprenticeship policy team and an apprenticeship delivery team when the education department took responsibility for apprenticeships from the business department. I thought, why don’t I just have one team of people rather than a having to deal with a policymaker who doesn't have any background in the subject? Why not make the head of the team, the person who's got a lifetime experience in apprenticeships?

Of course, such a person has got to learn and develop the ability to report to ministers and seek decisions from them and understand things from the minister's perspective. But that's not that hard.

Open policymaking up

It’s a good challenge from the from the design community to policymakers to think about the policy as a service. It doesn't always apply of course, but often in the world of education, certainly it does.

The design of that service requires a conversation about the role of the user in it.

My experience, and I suppose this is experience of the designer who reached out to me on through social media the other day, was that it can be frustrating for people advocating for this way of thinking. You come up against the world that I've described.

And so the reform to policymaking that I'm keen on, is one which opens policymaking up. One that includes much more public engagement, in the way that local government already does. That would help put design more front and centre.

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  1. Comment by John Mortimer posted on

    A post that perhaps we have been waiting for, for a long time! Expressing the nature of Policy as we perceive it, as not something that we need to simply improve on, but that we can take new perspectives on.
    Systems thinking contains at a cornerstone, the understanding of multiple perspectives. And that is not easy to achieve. We cannot simply doing it by reading about what others think. We cannot understand it through UX user interaction. We cannot understand it through data. This is more to do with understanding the nature of a complex system, where we apply sensemaking rather than analysis.
    We, as residents and the public, are often complex and non-logical. And our relationship with gov and health is often multi-layered.
    Thank you for highlighting that link with the public - residents - people who need support. Moving from local gov to Policy has had an important impact, thanks for highlighting this.

  2. Comment by Jeffrey Allen posted on

    Thanks for sharing all this so openly, Jonathan... I'm particularly intrigued by your point about multidisciplinary teams... what do you think is blocking us from working in that way now?

    The question about whether there's a need for a generalist at the centre of these teams is intriguing, but I think it's only a detail. I think the main question is how we structure our departments in a way that enables them to bring together the people with the right skills and empower those people to deeply research and test ideas for change before jumping to conclusions. What are the skills that are needed in policymaking, and how do we make sure they're present at all times (or at least when needed)?

    For example, should each policy area have a permanent service designer, user researcher, and data analyst, in addition to the hierarchical structure of policy officials they currently have?

    • Replies to Jeffrey Allen>

      Comment by Jonathan Slater posted on

      It may be a detail, but it’s the most important one. The policy generalists are the ones with the power. They decide who’s in the team. They decide what the structure of the department should be. They are the permanent secretaries.

      Whereas the service designers, data analysts, and user researchers are knocking at the door, asking to be invited to join the party.

      It’s time for the generalists to hand over the keys.

  3. Comment by David Russell posted on

    Jonathan - great blog, and really chimes with my 16 years in DfE and the 10 working close to it since then.

    Your killer lines are: "You wonder, what it is that got these people promoted? You know it is clearly not their expertise in the subject matter. It’s not necessarily even their managerial experience. What's got them promoted, more than anything else, is their ability to sound convincing. This is a very odd notion indeed, and it doesn't serve the minister well at all."

    In 16 years in DfE I had 8 different jobs at 4 different grades. In hindsight I never had truly deep subject knowledge in any of them, partly because 2 years is just not enough, but partly because 99% of what we all read and listened to day in day out was produced by other people in Sanctuary Buildings.

    I had a PGCE and 3 years teaching experience behind me when I entered DfE, and I was very worried about how unqualified I was to make education policy. I was appalled to discover how often I was the best-informed person in the room (the old proverb about the One-Eyed Man resonates here).

    Open policy-making - bringing users and expert practitioners into the heart of day-to-day Government business - is essential and we must adopt it now.


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