Three ways public policy can benefit from design

What I learned from working with IDEO.org as a policy student

I’m a recent graduate of the Master in Public Policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Earlier this year, I worked with IDEO.org on a project focused on financial health in India. You can see the website created through the project here and connect to my thesis here.

How might public policy benefit from design?

As a graduate policy student working with IDEO.org, I was very interested in this question, especially in the context of financial inclusion. (Financial inclusion means having access to “useful and affordable financial products and services that meet (your) needs”. Research shows that families that are financially included are better able to cope with economic shocks, access sustainable credit to start or grow a business, and invest in their education, nutrition and health.)

Our project focused on understanding the barriers to adopting digital financial services in India, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the financial inclusion consultancy MicroSave. The Indian government is planning to pay more subsidies and scholarships directly into recipients’ bank accounts, but those without easy access to banking services risk losing out.

In India, the number of bank account holders has increased dramatically: more than 310 million people have opened one since 2014; mobile technology has helped make financial services more affordable and reduced the need for customers to travel long distances to a branch. Yet despite great progress, the latest figures from Intermedia show that 22% of adults in India still don’t have a bank account. And of those who do, only about half (54%) actively use their account.

So how might design help close the gap? How might designers help make policy development more inclusive and more effective?

  1. Mindsets: Iterate with users, early and often

In policy school, we are taught to use Bardach’s Eightfold Path to solve problems. Bardach’s advice is to “start with what you know,” not with user needs. It’s a classic methodology, but one that assumes most of the work will take place in an analyst’s office. If you’re drafting policy to reduce the trade deficit, this might make perfect sense. But in many policy areas — including financial inclusion — essential insights come from the field.

For instance, after only four days of field research, the IDEO.org team spent a morning with a women’s loan group in a tiny town near Patna, India. We asked Shakti and her neighbors for feedback on some initial ideas to make it easier to access everyday banking, and even to try an early prototype. The group was critical of some concepts, suggested improvements to others and yet more ideas for us to explore. Imagine if analysts generated and iterated policy options like this? And if outcomes were projected using real prototypes with real people, not just experts and Excel models?

Designers can help by advocating for the power of design, and training policy professionals in its methods (perhaps using tools like IDEO.org’s Design Kit).

User research near Patna, India. Image courtesy IDEO.org.

2. Methods: Generate new concepts to maximize policy impact

Design methods can help identify opportunities to maximise the impact of new policies. For instance, in 2016, the Bihar state government in India began opening bank accounts for all children in government schools and paying scholarships and subsidies straight into these accounts. This clearly presents a huge opportunity to build healthy financial habits from a young age. We also noticed that many parents relied on their children to teach them how to use technology — including ATMs and mobile phones. So how might this new policy change support the financial health of adults, too? See the opportunity area Activate Youth.

Designers can help by treating public policy as part of their purview. They can find out the latest policy changes and proposals and explore their impacts in user research. They can identify opportunities to help those policies better address human needs.

3. Communication: Tell powerful stories to advocate for change

There are many brilliant policy ideas that never get implemented. They fail to make the jump from a policy memo to reality. The reasons for this vary, but one of them might just be the memo itself.

IDEO.org places a strong emphasis on storytelling. The four opportunity areas on our project site could have been presented as a memo — but enabling our audience to meet Lakshmi and understand her financial ecosystem and her needs was much more powerful. Although our concepts revolved around new products and services, policy proposals can surely sometimes benefit from similar techniques.

Take the issue of consumer protection in banking for poor and vulnerable communities in India. Instead of a report, how might think tanks tell the stories of people in rural areas who are victims of fraud, but unable to access consumer courts? Our project explored how providing better access to reliable financial advice can help prevent entrepreneurs like Ram from becoming victims of fraud in the first place. But how might advocates tell stories like this to also galvanize policy-makers?

Communications designers can help by using their skills to sharpen and amplify policy proposals. They can encourage policy advisors to be more creative in how they advocate for their proposals.

Towards more design in policy

The policy world is increasingly experimenting with design — see the US Government’s OPM Innovation Lab, the UK government’s Policy Lab, or Chile’s LabGob. Government digital service teams — typically responsible for delivery — emphasize user needs and iteration. But their approach is not often used by those developing policy. With a few exceptions, the mainstream policy profession lacks the training, incentives, and political support to adopt design mindsets and methods.

Designers can help

Designers can train policy professionals in design methods and mindsets. They can treat policy as part of their purview. They can combine their user research and storytelling skills to help others advocate for better policies.

There’s much that could be improved in the policy world. But my time working with IDEO.org convinced me that public policy can benefit from design — and that designers can help make this happen.

With thanks to IDEO.org, and especially to Parmita Dalal, Daniel Feldman, Nicole Kraieski, Emily Sadeghian and Martin Schnitzer.