Policy by Design — reflections on the Auckland Symposium

There has never been a better time, full of opportunity for social innovation work, as right now in New Zealand.

When leading social innovators from Aotearoa New Zealand (Gael Surgenor) and Australia (Ingrid Burkett) say this, it’s hard not to feel excited. When you get to spend two days with public sector leaders who are asking tough questions and playfully exploring new approaches, you see that there is real potential here for more people-centred policy practice.

I was lucky to take part in the Policy by Design Symposium last week, where I shared practice principles on co-design and recent research on design-for-policy and public sector innovation. This landmark symposium on the role of co-design and design in policy was developed and co-hosted by Auckland Co-design Lab, The Southern Initiative and Community Social Policy (Auckland Council).

‘Bus stop’ session participants discussing how to apply co-design principles in practice

Gaylene Sharman of Te Puna Manawa issued a compelling call to action in the introductory session. Gaylene described the moment when, after 25 years of working in the community, while people were dying in their cold houses, policymakers finally started listening. “Co-design changed the way the system listened to our whānau,” she told us, describing her experience with Healthy Homes, when government agencies finally began listening to community voices.

Penny Hagen of the Auckland Co-Design Lab framed the opportunity as not just about applying design-led approaches to policy development. We should also be finding ways to feed the knowledge generated in co-design and service design about what’s working in practice, and the unintended consequences and interactions of policies, back into the policy-making process. (Along similar lines, Reuben Stanton of Paper Giant shared some ideas about how service designers and social innovation agencies can help by getting political, when he spoke at Service Design Now in Melbourne last month.)

A framework to consider opportunities for design-led approaches to inform policy-making

Creating practice-based evidence by bringing in what we learn from prototyping and insights was also something that Ingrid Burkett from TACSI touched on in her talk on the conditions and mindsets for change. Possibly her most important message was this:

If you don’t want to listen and learn (or your system doesn’t) and you’re not prepared to act on that learning, don’t do co-design.

This wasn’t just a “ra ra” event, hyping people up with frantic brainstorms about the imperative to co-design. Barely a post-it note was used, despite the majority of sessions being interactive. This was an intelligently designed and well paced event, with a great mix of thoughtful concepts and practical activities.

A case study session presented by Alastair Child from Auckland Co-Design Lab (and partners)

The Healthy Homes initiative was one of several groundbreaking local case studies showcased in an innovative format at the symposium. Other highlights included a rare example of a design-led policy process — Auckland Council’s Facility Partnerships Policy, led by Rebekah Forman — and cases of culturally-grounded approaches to services for Māori children (Te Kākano) and early childhood education (through the South Auckland Social Investment Board). Design research in the latter case study revealed a striking example of the unintended consequences of policy. One of the former government’s Better Public Service participation targets was driving behaviour in a concerning way. While enrolment in early childhood education was being incentivised, it raised issues around quality and over-supply.

In her closing remarks, Diane Owenga of The Policy Project, reminded us of the importance of considering political imperatives. She also suggested that policy advisors ask policymakers how they can ensure learnings from a co-design process will be used, if decision makers tell them to do “co-design”.

One group’s vision for shifting policy practice

Another powerful call to action came via a video of young people in care expressing their hopes and goals for what Oranga Tamariki (the NZ Government’s Ministry for Children) could offer them. This was a great example of a government department with a ‘line of sight’ from policy to delivery that is putting the people it serves at the heart of its transformation. We heard that first-hand testimony from young people in care has been powerful for the policy team and for communicating with a minister who asks about their demonstrated impact on young people. Key lessons from that team included:

  • “If Policy is the back stage and Design is the front stage — ensure it’s the same stage.”
  • “Capturing insights doesn’t necessarily lead to change.”
  • “The absence of friction may mean you need to lean in a bit more.”
  • “Gnarly social problems take time.”

The amount of cross-sector approaches and multi-agency partnerships on display was striking. This sort of working across silos is also something we’ve noticed in our research on the Auckland Co-Design Lab. Kataraina Maki of Auckland Council remarked at the close of the symposium that it was great to see lots of connections and sharing across policy and delivery, different government departments, and local and central government. As she concluded:

If only we could harness the energy and passion in this room and put it out in the real world.