Critics of using human-centred design for policy are missing a golden opportunity

Critics of using human-centred design for policy are missing a golden opportunity


Right now organisations across Australia, the UK and elsewhere are using human-centred design (HCD) to develop policy.

NHSX is driving forward digital transformation in the UK health and social care sector; the NSW Government’s Policy Lab is using technology, emerging trends, data and information in innovative ways.

These efforts are successfully involving end users to develop path-breaking policy solutions that would likely prove elusive were traditional policy strategies to be deployed.

It is rather surprising to read a critique that claims such successes are exceptions, and that HCD (sometimes referred to as design thinking) has limited place in policy design. Last year Canadian academics Amanda Clarke and Jonathan Craft penned a paper (“The twin faces of public sector design”), which was critical of HCD. This paper was brought to the attention of Australian audiences in The Mandarin and ANZSOG in July 2019.

As someone who has worked for more than a decade at the intersection of policy, regulation and service delivery, I fear it might lead some public sector leaders to turn their back on HCD at a time when it might prove most useful to them.

New applications for established techniques

The paper is premised on the idea that HCD involves “novel techniques” for developing public policy, however the techniques have been around as long as research and product development have been.

Consider how a new car has been developed for a century or more: the researching, prototyping, testing, learning and building are demonstrations of design techniques in action. Or consider how the pharmaceuticals industry develops new medications, using an iterative approach that involves clinical trials, once safety is established, to evaluate efficacy. What is novel, however, is that governments are starting to understand the potency of HCD and are applying it in the policy domain.

To dismiss design thinking as originating outside the public sector and therefore “not always fit for purpose” is to ignore the common challenge faced by different sectors: understanding a problem, predicting the best way to solve it and then working out what might happen in practice. This challenge is the same whether you are trying to understand how someone will engage with a new product or how someone will engage with a policy.

HCD can empower citizens

Clarke and Craft frame design as questioning established governance institutions and practices. But to consider HCD only in terms of its impact on governments ignores the impact on the citizens they serve. At its heart, design thinking is about using tools (often digital) to give citizens greater opportunity to advocate for their interests.

In the previous paradigm, government was designed to manage people through hierarchical power systems. But now the more widespread distribution of information challenges the notion of top-down power, and policymakers risk falling behind.

As for the institutional form, the authors are right that design currently resides in design units in governments, such as innovation labs, design hubs and digital transformation offices. But what they overlook is that this approach may prove transitory, with more mature models already emerging in which research and design is part of the DNA of every policy person in an organisation, not just a few people in a specialised team.

In their explanation of the elements of policy design, Clarke and Craft spell out most key considerations, but ignore one important point: Good policy design needs to involve evaluation, both of previous policies and of new ones, to understand what works. Many of the trickiest social problems remain as bad as they did decades ago — think of outcomes for children in out-of-home care, or recidivism rates for prisoners. Inherent in design is an iterative approach that looks at what has gone on so far, and makes the necessary changes.

Making design thinking work in government

So rather than reject design thinking or HCD in policy design, what can we do to make it a success? From our experience, there are several preconditions for successful implementation:

  • Policymakers must value the lived experience and treat users as experts. Policymaking is long and convoluted, involving many stakeholders with competing interests working to solve complex social issues at a time when public trust of politicians is at an all-time low. Human-centred design can bridge the gap between policymakers, government and politicians by genuinely valuing the expertise citizens have over their own lives. Consider the experience of redesigning policy for children in out-of-home care. It would be challenging for, say, a career public servant with no lived experience of trauma, with little insight into the technology used by young people and with limited understanding of the needs of young people to redesign this policy without valuing the lived experience of the people most closely impacted.
  • Policymakers need permission to go slow in the beginning and faster later. HCD requires spending time at the beginning to ensure the right policy question is being asked and answered. The success of the policy and policy instruments will depend on how well they come together to solve a problem. Good designers take time to understand the political drivers, the social problem and the citizen perspective, in order to achieve a balance. Bad policy, however, promotes one perspective over all others and answers the wrong question. Previous decades of foreign policy adventurism are a testament to the pitfalls of prioritising a single perspective to the exclusion of others.
  • Policymakers need a culture of collaboration and an appetite to examine power. Citizens simply do not care which parts of government do what. They want governments to make achieving their goals simple, safe and equitable. So different parts of government must understand each other, work together on policy areas that overlap, explore how to make things fair and give power to people who lack it. To see the absence of collaboration, note Australia’s current policy contradiction, in which it is attempting to increase economic growth while also making it harder for people with specialist skills to get working visas.

With these preconditions in place, HCD is much more likely to be effective.

High effort for a high reward

While there is some wisdom in the cautions of Clarke and Craft, I hope the lesson is not to abandon design thinking but instead to put in place the right conditions to make it a success.

Public policy practitioners who dismiss the potential rather than seek to get it right are doing themselves, and their communities, a disservice.

This piece first appeared in The Mandarin on 26 August 2019.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help you use human-centred design to tackling your public policy challenges.

Written by Kirsty Elderton during her time as a Principal at Nous.