Design in policy

Hello James. I hope you had a lovely Christmas. You asked me a question and I struggled to fit my answer to it in a string of tweets so decided to respond in a blog post. Here it is.

If you look at quadrants of the Cynefin framework (below), I typically think of policy advice on the right hand side and policy design on the left. Certainly, most policy advisors I’ve worked with have the knowledge and skills to nail the quadrants on the right and would struggle more in spaces where there is high uncertainty and few answers. Equally, the designers I’ve worked with have all been great at the sense-making and experimentation in the quadrants on the left but many really could have done a better job of integrating qual and quant, and drawing from/building on the existing knowledge base. This is why I’m really excited about the move in some departments — like DfE — to have policy officials working alongside designers and researchers, exploring complex policy problems and developing and testing potential solutions together. Best of both worlds.

Cynefin (from Dave Snowden)

It’s worth elaborating, I think, on where a designer can add greatest value.

First, designers are great when too much domain expertise is unhelpful. Received wisdom and existing mental models often get in the way when you need to look at things differently or if you need to challenge existing assumptions. A designer will bring a new perspective, subject naivety (a gift in this context), and critique skills that really open up minds.

Second, a design approach is key where answers cannot be found in existing practice, where experimentation becomes more important than experience. One of the great things about a (good) designer is how disposable their ideas can be — they’re trained to generate lots of ideas, get feedback, abandon some and iterate others. They create sh*tty first drafts because their priority is testing and getting feedback as early as possible.

Contrast this with the tradition of policy advice, in which policy advisors are expected to have the right answers, give the best available advice, and develop policy that works first time. They’re not “shipping” early, they’re taking their time to get it right. Because they’re not allowed to be wrong. Because they’re not allowed to fail.

Until Ministers welcome experimentation — prototyping strategy, policy and implementation; learning lessons through invalidating hypotheses — your average policy advisor won’t feel comfortable using these approaches with complex and controversial problems. Precisely the types of problems, I’d add, that would benefit from a design approach.

[Note- I say “average” policy advisor because there are bold, brave ones out there, willing to rock boats when necessary, and many of them in your own department.]

Sadly for us, Ministerial appetite for experimentation depends on the level of psychological security each of them feels at the time. The relationship between the Government and the British media has always made this a tough ask— but sense of security seems particularly in short supply at the moment.

Oh well.

Have a great NYE and see you in January,

Audree