Is co-design a policy unicorn?

Emma Blomkamp
The Policy Lab
Published in
4 min readMar 7, 2018


There has been a plethora of claims in recent years about what co-design can do and why we should be using it, especially in the public sector.

Co-design, we are told, can help us to generate more innovative ideas, ensure policies and services match the needs of citizens, achieve economic efficiencies by improving responsiveness, foster cooperation and trust between different groups, meaningfully engage the ‘hard to reach’, and achieve support for change.

There is a risk that we are treating co-design as a “magic concept”[i] or a “policy unicorn”[ii], a mythical thing of beauty that has never been seen in real-life but whose existence we fantasise about. Indeed, while there are lots of good examples of co-design for human services, it’s hard to find concrete and comprehensive examples of co-design applied in a policy-making process.

Sure, there is lots of talk about co-design in the public service, but the term is sometimes used loosely to refer to any collective approach to decision-making. When it’s used in this way, everyone seems to be doing it, and co-design no longer has much meaning.

In a recent paper, I have argued that we need a more specific, shared definition of co-design for policy, especially if we want to advance research and practice in this field.

What is co-design for policy?

When I talk about (public) policy, I am thinking of it as a problem-solving activity that involves arranging the resources of government in a certain way to achieve a specific aim or set of objectives (Howlett 2010). In other words — the process by which government chooses how to respond to a particular problem is the process of making policy.

A simple way to understand the term co-design is to break it down into its constitutive parts. The ‘co’ is typically considered an abbreviation for ‘cooperative’ or ‘collaborative’ design, which draws on the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design. ‘Design’ here refers to the discipline of industrial design, and is connected to the concept of ‘design thinking’, which puts the people affected by an issue (or ‘end users’ of what is being designed) at the heart of an iterative process to find solutions to shared problems.

A more comprehensive way to understand co-design is as a process, set of principles, and application of practical tools. These are shown in the table below and elaborated on in my article in the Australian Journal of Public Administration [iii].

Co-design for policy: a process, principles and practical tools (Blomkamp 2018)

Defining co-design in this way helps us to compare and contrast co-design with approaches it is sometimes confused with. Co-design is similar to, but not the same as, participatory and deliberative models of democracy. Both these democratic models are concerned with issues of citizen participation and decision-making, but neither necessarily involve any creative methods or innovative outcomes. Co-design can go hand-in-hand with co-production, but the latter may only describe the implementation phase of policy, whereas co-design is about the full design process.

Finally, a key difference from user- or human-centred design is that, in co-design for policy, people with lived experience of the issue must be active participants throughout the policy design process.

A precise definition like this makes it harder to find and to achieve co-design for policy, but hopefully it can help us to move beyond the buzzword. Just as clearly describing a unicorn (as a creature with a single, pointed horn projecting from its forehead) helps us to tell the difference between a horse and a unicorn, this definition should help us to identify what is and what isn’t co-design in practice.

[i] ‘Magic concepts’ are ideas that are ‘very broad, normatively charged and lay claim to universal or near universal-application’ (Pollitt and Hupe 2011, 643), like “motherhood and apple pie” type ideas.

[ii] Durose and Richardson (2016, 3) point to the risk of treating ‘co-production as a “policy unicorn” (Cimasi, 2013, p. Xxviii), a mythical policy of beauty, which has never been seen in a practicable and replicable form.’

[iii] The principles shown in the table are drawn from a review of design studies literature undertaken by van Buuren and Voorberg (2017). The definition here deliberately resembles Elizabeth Sanders’ (2014) description of co-design as method, mindset and tools.



Emma Blomkamp
The Policy Lab

Pragmatic idealist, working to co-create compassionate systems.