Connecting Design to Policy

A brief chat at the Policy Lab

The Policy Lab at HM Treasury

In my quest to explore the intersections of Design and Policy, I reached out to the Policy Lab to see if they’d be interested in a quick chat while I was visiting London. My request was graciously accepted by Rupert Cryer, so last week I got the chance to sit down with him in their new SKYroom at the HM Treasury to talk about the role of design in policy making. We had a great discussion about a myriad of topics, but the following four points are my biggest takeaways from the day.

1. Similar Role Shifts

It seems that there are similar narratives being used to highlight the shifting role for both the policy analyst and the designer. Rupert told me about the classic archetype in British civil service of the “Oxford Policy Analyst”. The Oxford man is able to take the required constraints of a particular situation, use their brilliant and highly educated minds to craft an “elegant solution”; in the end, the Minister is pleased. This policy gets “lobbed over” the wall to then be implemented by some group. When the implementation of the policy fails to live up to its expectation, it’s not really the policy that’s the problem, it’s the implementation team. Everything always looks good on paper.

The design world tells a similar tale of the lone “Super Star Designer” . These are the designers of the Modernist bent who act in isolation, labour over the problem at hand, putting their creative minds to a task and ultimately design “the perfect solution”. Similar to the example above, the design is released into the world…and flops (sometimes).

This mindset and way of working finds validity in a Waterfall methodology developed by Dr. Royce in 1970. In theory it sounds great. The basic premise is simple, if you can analyze a system to death and document every requirement up front, you can build the right solution. But therein lies the problem. We can never know everything up front. This is true both in design and policy. And this way of thinking undermines the recognition that we live in a complex world with emergent properties. Even Royce describes the process as “risky and invites failure”.

Inevitably we’ve seen a shift in how these disciplines engage with a problem. Design has become more iterative with processes that are more human-centred, bringing users more directly into the process. Subsequently, as design methods begin to be applied in the policy process this same shift occurs. Early and rough ideas are prototyped, learning happens and the end result gets closer in line with the needs to solve a problem. The Policy Lab has become an excellent example showcasing what this means through its use of design methods and ways of working.

2. Who Has a Seat at the Table?

Bringing together more roles and perspectives around a policy or design problem is the second common characteristic developing in these disciplines. The shifting role of designer/policy analyst from being one voice to many voices around a problem invites more people and perspectives into the room to tackle a problem from different angles. Perhaps the utilization of design methods in the Lab is the driver behind this, but there is a recognition that all the players need to gather early in the project. Rupert and I shared similar perspectives about this. He calls for the need to bring all the “players” around a policy (Data, Digital, Design, Lawyer, Subject Matter Experts) together early in the process to ensure all the unique perspectives of a policy challenge are addressed.

Bringing the right people together early is fundamental.

From a service design lens, I recognized that service design needs to engage with policy people much earlier in the design process to avoid the potential blocks policy might present to redesigning a service.

A gathering of different disciplines together to focus on a policy or design challenge makes me think about a necessary shift we need to see in all of our work. If we focus our work on the outcomes we hope to achieve rather than thinking about disciplines, the disciplinary divides we create seem quite arbitrary. The problems we face are not intra-disciplinary in nature, they are trans-disciplinary. Subsequently, we need new ways of working and collaborating that recognizes this complexity and can bring these different perspectives together.

3. The Value of Design

So what value does design bring to the policy process? There are many, but Rupert singled out one: speed. Design methods not only bring a new range of perspectives and tools to the policy process, but it also makes this process quicker. Design facilitates a way of working that doesn’t have people sitting around a table talking about things, it gets them out of their chairs and into a mode of doing. This mode of doing and collaboratively working through an issue brings a new level of speed to the policy process that wasn’t found before.

4. Safe Spaces To Do Risky Things

View of Big Ben from the SKYroom

Our meeting was held in the SKYroom at the Policy Lab. It’s a beautiful and open space with a view that can’t be beat! The recognition that the physical space one works in has not been lost on the Lab. In order to effectively collaborate, you need the space to enable that collaboration. Have you ever tried to “be creative” in a cramped basement office with little wall space?

Rupert claims that the notion is simple. Create a space that people feel comfortable to shift their way of thinking, but not too weird to make them feel out of their element, and just different enough from the typical public servant boardroom to give them permission to play around with craft supplies and put Post-It notes up on the wall. The SKYroom definitely embodies these principles and represents a significant shift in many public offices. Never underestimate the effect a physical space has on your work and your mentality!

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~ * Conclusion ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*

I was so grateful that Rupert gave me a bit of his morning to talk with me about this topic. It’s becoming more and more clear how policy and design can relate to each other, and the value that design methods can bring to the policy process. If you’re interested in exploring this further don’t hesitate to leave a response!