Quick takes on how to bring prototyping into policy-making

Last week our Legal Design Lab ran an experimental summit of various policy lab leaders, researchers, lawyers, designers, and technologists to figure out: can we bring a spirit of prototyping into how we make policies?

(What does prototyping policy mean, exactly? Read more from Verena about it. But basically — how do we run more experiments and involve more stakeholders in how we craft policies?)

We ran the Summit in part to spot methods, templates, case studies, and other useful strategies that we can be teaching our students — to be better leaders. When they go to work in government, advocacy groups, and tech companies, how do we help them make more intentional, impactful, human-centered policies?

And our other motive was to build a network of people working in these new civic tech, innovation labs, and ‘new creative’ spaces in government. Where they are trying out new ways for governments to understand people’s needs, to redesign how services and policies are set up, and how to plan for new data sources and emerging tech.

So we organized our Prototyping for Policy summit to be an unconference and a workshop — to let people network, propose sessions and questions, and to actually do design work together. In this way, we were setting up experiments to see what lessons and methods emerged as the most promising ways to prototype policy — and then try them out together in policy design workshops.

We’ll be doing a longer debrief + write-up, including post-summit interviews with many of our participants about what they worked on, what methods and process they’re using, and insights to share.

For now, here are some quick reactions + thoughts I have.

1. Policy Design is not a separate (sequestered) area of design, as much as a track or a layer on top of all kinds of other design.

Oftentimes we group design into different branches or layers of a pyramid. Are you doing service design? Org design? Visual design? What we saw at the summit were groups prototyping new policies by crafting new products, wireframes, service journeys, and organizational maps — and then using that more traditional kind of design prototype to discuss, interrogate, and refine what the ‘policy’ should be.

2. People in a Design Setting Do Not Want to Craft Text of a Policy

We ran our second day of the summit as a Policy Prototyping design workshop. I was expecting to see teams craft policy statements, regulation text, new legislation. I had hypothesized that teams (especially those working on the regulation of legal profession, or how to regulate machine learning, or how digital companies should present better data transparency), would be wordsmith-ing new policies.

But instead, we saw the groups all gravitate to more traditional forms of prototyping. They drew timelines and diagrams of how new services and event-series would operate. They drew wireframes of new consent/data transparency interactions. They drew menus of new options and types of professionals. None of the teams spent much time on the exact words of what the policy was. They’d rather spend time on the more ‘material’ parts of policy: people involved, process involved, screens and digital displays.

This is kind of obvious looking back. It is more fun to craft these more visual and human parts of policy. It is exhausting and contentious to get text exactly right. Since the teams had just formed on the day, there wasn’t necessarily enough trust and commitment to invest in that kind of textual prototyping.

In future classes and policy design sessions, we need to figure out how to make teams excited to invest in this wordsmith prototyping, though. We know how important the actual text of laws, rules, and policies are — so we in design need to be able to prototype in that material to have influence.

3. There are a Handful of Key Moments to do Policy Prototyping

Based on the lightning talks and breakout sessions on Day 1 — and reinforced by the workshops on Day 2 — we observed that there were particular kinds of challenges and contexts for prototyping in the policy-making cycle.

Here are some of the key moments for prototyping and other design methods to be of use for policy-making:

  1. During the roll-out of a new civic design/tech intervention. When civic designers and technologists are crafting a new intervention — can they intentionally reflect on what policies might inhibit this vetted innovation? And then widen their design process to also begin prototyping changes to these inhibiting policies?
  2. When regulating digital experiences. Policy-makers are increasingly interested in addressing people’s experiences with technology —to promote their control and transparency over it. So they decide to craft legislation about how people interact with digital services (see the GDPR or California’s new privacy legislation). At this moment, can interdisciplinary, public-private groups run prototyping sessions on how this legislation would play out in specific interfaces — in specific wireframes? This test-run of how the policy would translate into reality could let the group inquire into whether the legislation will play out to give more meaningful consent — or if it will make for worse/status quo experiences? It is prototyping as stress-testing new regulation before it’s released.
  3. To determine the risks in removing/changing a highly regulated space. How do we re-regulate a highly regulated group of professionals (like those providing legal services) to allow for greater access to these services at more diverse price points? Right now, not much change happens because of invocations of ‘risk’. Prototyping, like through regulatory sandboxes, can be a way to run small controlled experiments to determine what risks actually will emerge if regulation is taken away or restructured. The experiment can allow for observation of how customers and providers in a market will actually behave, and not just how we speculate about how they’ll behave.
  4. To get more public voice and priorities in how we regulate emerging tech and harness new data. The themes of ‘how should we regulate machine learning’ and ‘how can cities take advantage of new data streams for the benefit of communities’ circulated throughout the summit. A prototyping approach would widen that conversation to a larger group of stakeholders — and structure ways for diverse groups to participate in setting the policy. Prototyping sessions are a way to get a crowd involved in policy. By running games, simulations, models, and other interactive design sessions, prototyping is a way to educate the community about the policy choices, and get their input about them. Prototyping sessions can open new democratic spaces.

4. Designers Need to Be More Intentional About Their Power

We’ve seen a rise of designers with influence in the corporate setting (see ‘The Rise of the DEO’). But in government, designers have not necessarily found their political footing when in collaboration with legislators, economists, lawyers, and other policy-makers.

At the Summit, we had a great mix of creative people (some who call themselves designers, but not all) who are working in government. There was a general take-away that it’s not just about getting initial buy-in to design from fellow policy-makers. There are now established shared strategies about how to run a design process in a government setting. Now the challenge is how to get more positions of leadership and how to influence the culture.

How can design not just be tolerated inside the government, but flourish and influence?