In defence of the policymaker

Should policymakers be policy designers?

Yes, they should. In fact, many already are.

I want to challenge the stereotype of the policymaker — of the middle-aged white man sitting in his Whitehall ivory tower, writing policy with no experience of how policy plays out in real life, with no empathy with service users, and no testing of ideas before they’re rolled out nationally. Because people need to know that it is a stereotype — there are policy designers in Whitehall, and have been for some time.

A decade before “service design” and “open policymaking” came to Government, policymakers were expected to adhere to principles that have since come to the fore through these new disciplines. This expectation was written into civil service competency frameworks*, through statements like the following:

  • Consider the wider impact of policy issues arising within my area, both within and beyond government
  • Ensure customers and stakeholders are identified and engaged, asking for and understanding their perspectives and demonstrating empathy with their positions
  • Actively encourage the views of others whose viewpoint is different to mine
  • Understand the bigger picture and see relevant links between issues
  • Show an open and agile mind and the intellectual curiosity to generate innovative ideas and develop practical solutions from them.

The same frameworks described high performance in the senior civil service like this**:

  • Works powerfully the synergies between structure, process, people and culture to deliver the business and change
  • Creates a culture of restless curiosity because of great reception given to new ideas
  • Seen as leading innovator who delivers excellence and is a shrewd judge of value-creating opportunities, unafraid to experiment in both policy and process structures and outcomes
  • Creates an open challenge-oriented culture within the business as a whole where it is seen to be desirable to challenge sacred cows
  • Identifies and enrols key stakeholders in partnerships across organisational boundaries in order to make things happen beyond remit of role for the good of the overall business.

Not just words, these principles — systems thinking, empathy, the need to understand complexity, the need for exploration and testing of different ideas, the need to work collaboratively with customers and stakeholders — shaped how many civil servants went about developing policy.

Drawing on just my own experience, as a policymaker I’ve spent time talking to health professionals and patients at hospitals, mental health trusts and GP surgeries. I’ve seed-funded an array of projects experimenting with different ways of working more effectively across the health/social care interface — with the objective of building the evidence base for more effective system-level change. I’ve been on a stakeout, watching money launderers and cash couriers at money transfer businesses, to gather insight on criminal behaviours that I translated into better enforcement policy. I’ve convened multidisciplinary groups from across entire policy landscapes to drive forward strategic transformation together, blind to the silos they usually work in.

That’s just one policymaker’s experience — and there’s nothing special about me. So while I know that designerly behaviour is not yet the norm in the civil service, I do want to shout out to the policymakers-turned-designers who have been quietly making Government policy better all these years. And ask them to join me in being less quiet about it.

* taken from HM Treasury competency framework in 2003

** taken from SCS High Potential Competency framework of 2006