Forget policy — start with people

No one ‘delivers policy’.

I sometimes think of myself as a reformed policy wonk. Since my early career in a think tank I’ve become more and more disenchanted with the idea of policy: policy making, policy setting, influencing policy, delivering policy.

Go where people are, meet them on their terms.

For me, all of this starts in the wrong place — think tanks, Whitehall and party manifestos. Policy has long been the favourite part of government, a beauty parade of competing ideas and ideologies. But, as one Civil Service Fast Streamer said at their conference I spoke at recently, when the ideals of policy hit the reality of service delivery they fall apart pretty quickly.

I think government should stop this love affair with policy. The policy is not the most important part. What matters are outcomes.

Here are three ways to debunk the primacy of policy:

1. Don’t start with policy. Start with people.

People will amaze and astound you. We are not rational actors and we have complex needs and behaviours that manifest themselves in ways that can’t be predicted in a model. People with complex needs are often the experts in their own situations. They’re also the ones who have the greatest ability to change those situations. Work with them to understand what they need.

2. Observation beats consultation every time.

Remember the golden rule of good user research: don’t ask a heroin addict where it all went wrong, ask her how her day was yesterday. If you ask people something directly they will more than likely give you the answer they think you want to hear. Humans are people pleasers. We want to get the answer right. Instead, be an investigative journalist. See the context and read between the lines. Meet people on their terms, in jeans and t-shirt, not a suit.

3. You don’t deliver policy. You deliver services. Which deliver outcomes.

Policy delivery is not a thing. Don’t even pretend to do it. Focus on the outcomes you want to achieve and then work tirelessly to understand the best way to do that. You won’t be able to do it from a desk, so be ready to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in to the messiness of people’s lives.

At Good Things our design principles help guide us through this, focusing on ‘relationships not transactions’, designing ‘with, not for’ people and understanding underlying behaviour. We still make policy recommendations, but these come from the services we design and the outcomes we deliver, not before them.