WTF is policy?

You’re not the only one who’s confused

I was lucky enough to grab myself some tickets to the One Team Gov unconference in London last week. For those of you who weren’t there, it was a brilliantly inspiring event that brought policymakers and designers together at long last, and started helping them realised that the two aren’t really that different at all.

In many ways the approach of One Team Gov is what Policy Lab has been doing for three years now; using design thinking methods to approach big policy problems. Lab tackles complex issues like ‘how do you end homelessness’, ‘what’s the future of rail?’ or ‘how do we get people to up-skill throughout their life?’. These are exciting questions, that require service design techniques to really understand people, their needs and create policies that work in the real world.

One Team Gov is an early step on the long journey from policymaker to policy designer, and it’s very exciting.

But there was one clear area of confusion; the definition of policy. It was clear that although policymakers thought they knew what it meant, the design side of the event had a more fuzzy definition. Some thought it was always an end to end digital service, whilst others felt that its outputs could be much ‘softer’ and might be harder to measure, prototype and iterate.

All of the above are right, but there was clear confusion about how design could be applied to such a fluffy word. And that’s fine, policy is complicated, it’s impact and experience can vary from topic to topic, and delivery mechanisms have to be politically aware (with a small p) and varied. The way you deliver a tax policy is going to be different to that of decreasing child mortality rates.

This confusion though, reminded me of a tool we created in Policy Lab; the ladder of intervention(pdf) and intervention cards(pdf).

We made these cards to help policy makers think about the actual ways that their policy would have to be delivered, and start to explore iterative, user centered policy making and prototyping.

It turns out though, that it’s also a great tool for helping designers explore what the experience of policy could actually be.

  1. Nudging
    Small in work needed, but a good way to make something you desire happen without actually shaking things up too much. This could involve working with a minister to help push for something, or highlighting a particular change you want people to copy. It works well with very small policy areas or a specific group of people or organisation.
  2. Influencing and informing
    This works well with ‘softer’ cultural or mindset challenges and opportunities. It’s not dissimilar to nudging, but more public and could involve a advertising, branding or something more interactive for people to explore and react to.
  3. Buying services
    If you need to make something happen quickly, then buying a service and making people use it is a good way of making that happen. This could be a service to deliver organisational change or a business that will help grow an industry.
  4. Providing services
    Yes, policy can also be an end to end service. These services can be digital, physical or a mixture of the two. A good example is data privacy in the NHS; the policy gives you a right to control your data, but the delivery can be an online service, a physical form in a GPs office, or anything in between.
  5. Taxes and subsidies
    Not disimilar to influencing and informing, but this time with real impact. Taxes and subsidies will likely always have a user experience from the further up this list though.
  6. Regulation
    A large task, but a good way of ensuring that an industry has a safety net for users and citizens. Remember that delivering this will likely require a few other things from above.
  7. Laws
    Finally, perhaps the biggest, and longest delivery mechanism. Law changes require consultation and are more complex to prototype, but are by far the most powerful way of sending a message and delivering true change. Again, laws are only one part of delivery — they’ll often require something from above.

This is not an exhaustive list, and they are by no means exclusive — many will rely on another, and in my experience you can start at the top and iterate / prototype your way down until you get to a desired outcome.

If you’re interested in how design and policy are merging across the civil service than get in touch with the One Team Gov team or Policy Lab.

Download the ladder of intervention(pfd) or intervention cards(pfd).