Making public policy in the digital age

A week is a long time in politics. It should be a long time in policy too — Andrew Greenway & Richard Pope

Setting a vision through prototyping

Prototyping is an effective way of communicating a complex policy by actually showing how it might work. It can help stakeholders think beyond their usual frame of reference and consider bold alternatives.

Multidisciplinary teams

Good policy development demands genuinely multi-disciplinary teams. Only with technologists, security professionals, designers, content, comms, legal and other subject matter experts working towards the same aim is it possible to properly understand trade-offs between things like utility, privacy and security.

Understand the limitations of technology

Good policies require an understanding of the limitations and opportunities of technology that will be used to execute them. Good regulations require a genuine understanding of characteristics of the technology they seek to regulate. These things are especially true of emerging technologies like machine learning or differential privacy.

Real-world change, not ‘innovation’

There is a risk of seeing this approach as just applying technology to the current policy process, or suggesting the creation of new innovation labs. However, that would not address the core issue.

It still needs to be accountable

The first step to all this is finding leaders who will put trust in the team doing the work. Those leaders will give teams the space and the power to do the right thing. This is scary, for everyone involved. Even so, we’ve seen no internet-era government succeed without creating this level of trust.

Policy isn’t just a job for government

We believe public policy teams in companies and civic institutions should embrace this approach too. For example using prototyping to communicate how they might implement a particular legislative change like GDPR, or how they are responding to a particular issues in society. The work of the UK bank Monzo in using prototyping to show new approaches to managing mental health is a nice example of the latter.


For both companies and governments, we believe treating policy as a special case represents a huge missed opportunity.

About the authors

Andrew Greenway and Richard Pope were responsible for developing the UK government’s Digital Service Standard in 2013, which all central government services are assessed against.



The Project on Digital Era Government at Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center explores the relationship between digital technology and governance as they relate to digital government services

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