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The challenge now for design in policy

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Events, PublicPolicyDesign, Research

People taking part in an event about making public services.

A significant new report has just been launched: Design & Policy – Current Debates and Future Directions for Research in the UK.

Co-authored by myself with Professors Lucy Kimbell, Ramia Mazé and Liz Richardson, the report is endorsed by the cross-government Policy Design Community (who are sponsored by Policy Profession) and is the culmination of the work of the AHRC-funded Design|Policy network. The activities of the network have brought together over 700 designers, researchers and policymakers to debate the future directions for research at the intersection of design and policymaking in the UK, which have been well-documented in this blog.

A distinctive contribution of design to policymaking

We found that there is a growing field in practice and research dedicated to discovering, developing and investigating the distinctive contribution of design to policymaking. Whilst the UK is a leader in the use of design in government and policy, this leading position could be enhanced through a more effective, cross-disciplinary evidence base about the use of design expertise in policymaking. We propose a research agenda that deepens understanding of: (1) the extent of design in policymaking, (2) how design’s distinctiveness can be applied through different types of design, (3) its impact, and (4) different relationships between design and policy. This research agenda demands different types of research, including cross-disciplinary research integrating design and policy studies and to mobilise UK central, city-regional and local government as collaborators and sites of co-produced research.

In our two launch events, the University of Manchester’s Professor Liz Richardson shared that the recommendations and call for action made in the report were grounded on two primary aims: first, to articulate the distinctive contribution that design can make to policy; and second, to set the agenda for how the evidence-base on public design needs to develop in order to clarify its value, allow others to see themselves in it, and to provide a means to mobilise action and change across policymaking.

Design has never been so important

The events provided an opportunity for key stakeholders to reflect upon and respond to the recommendations of the report. In the initial closed event for the UK civil service, Andrew Knight, Head of the cross-government Policy Design Community highlighted the value of this intervention in ‘raising the waterline’ by enhancing the credibility and providing external validation of the significant potential of design within policymaking. Professor Christopher Smith, Executive Chair of the Arts and Humanities Research Council also strongly welcomed the report and emphasised AHRC’s clear commitment to design. He reflected on the crucial contribution that design could make to address the fundamental tension within government between the need for long-term responses to wicked challenges such as AI and climate change, and the short-term necessities of governing; this could range from embedding creativity in policymaking to upskilling future public servants.

Our second open launch event involved over 90 researchers, designers and policymakers who work with UK central, devolved and local government. Our first speaker, Lady Rachel Cooper OBE, Distinguished Professor of Design Management and Policy at Lancaster University and a Director of ImaginationLancaster, reflected on the trajectory of design within policymaking, arguing that the challenges in consolidating the role of design across policymaking are different than those encountered in initially establishing it, and need to recognised as such. Coca Rivas, Director of Design at design and digital agency DXW, reflected on her extensive close collaboration with government, and highlighted the critical role of design in closing the gap between making policy and implementing, and doing so in an effective, incremental and inclusive way. Dr Jonathan Carr-West, Chief Executive of the Local Government Information Unit reflected that it has never been so important but also never been so challenging to absorb innovation. He offered a powerful reflection on the challenges facing local government including rising costs and rising demand. Carr-West argued that design has a critical role to play in meeting the significant challenges of service delivery, but needs to be able do so in a way that recognises the hard realities of funding and focus on delivering statutory services.

Both events involved a rich and vibrant discussion, with some key themes:

Design is recognised within policymaking, but there’s more to do

Design was recognised as an innovative approach to policymaking which now has established a presence within policymaking, and to be particularly crucial in a context of radical uncertainty which has strained the capacity of existing policy design tools. However, whilst inspiring, in many ways recognition the potential contribution of design to policy remains marginal and not always well understood amongst policymakers. A number of contributors reflected on the continued need to make the case for design in ways that closes the gap between design practitioners and other professionals in government, and is able to cogently answer questions or scepticism from policymakers.

An evidence-base will help build credibility and momentum

A crucial contribution can be made by establishing an evidence-base for design in policy which addresses: the distinctiveness of design, its ability to help generate solutions to the challenges faced by policymakers, and the outcomes it can deliver.

Lack of such an evidence-base – and of the conceptual tools to make sense of it - was seen to pose risks, particularly that design as an approach could be undermined or stretched, or that policymakers would struggle to differentiate between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ design, which could threaten rather than consolidating its credibility.

It was recognised that efforts to mobilise design within policymaking needs to happen not just in central government, but at devolved and local-level, in ways that are place sensitive.

Building this requires collaboration between policymakers and researchers

The role of research on the strategic value and impact of design in policy, conducted with but independent from government, was perceived to be crucial in building this credibility and momentum. Several calls were made for establishing different opportunities for exchange and collaboration between universities and government to address real-world challenges.

A shared focus on making a difference

Many contributors identified with Dr. Jocelyn Bailey’s reflection on her AHRC-funded doctoral research in our report on ensuring that the use of design in policymaking is focused on bringing about real-world change in both the quality and outcomes of governing. To do this effectively, those practicing and promoting design needs to engage with the crucial insights and experiences of those across the policy environment, including the front-line of public services.

Directions for future design research

Our report both establishes the nature of the challenge, and provides a basis for those keen to advance the scope of design within policymaking to move forward.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by john mortimer posted on

    It is good to see this come out and push the boundaries of Policy and the link with local authorities and citizens.


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