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Improving commissioning through design thinking

By Maria Katsonis

Friday February 15, 2019

Public policies and programs are intended to improve the lives of citizens. But policy design is often removed from the gritty environments experienced daily by citizens. This brief shows how design thinking can help close the gap and improve commissioning of public services.

At a glance

In a paper for the journal Policy Design and Practice, Professor Michael Mintrom and Madeline Thomas (Australia and New Zealand School of Government) explore the connection between design thinking and commissioning of public services.

They examine how design thinking can lead to more effective commissioning and also improve collaboration in service delivery.

What is commissioning?


  • involves engagement with, or delegation to, a third party to undertake a defined task.
  • spans the spectrum of activities from needs assessment to service delivery to outcome evaluation.

Commissioning is not just about procurement, purchasing, or contracting – these can be elements of the commissioning process.

Why use commissioning?

Governments face a variety of challenges where commissioning can assist. These include:

  • better integration of services when there is fragmentation.
  • effective performance management where service providers deliver social outcomes within available resources.
  • strategic engagement with external or inter-governmental suppliers, including the design and ongoing management of the systems through which services are delivered.

Commissioning can be more successful when:

  • it is supported by appropriate financial incentives, regulation and performance management frameworks.
  • commissioners have a clear sense of the needs of users and procure services that match these needs.
  • commissioners have the technical and managerial skills needed to assess the vulnerability and resilience of the services being commissioned.

Public service commissioning reduces the role of government in providing services. Instead government is an enabler and overseer who assesses the needs of service users and the outcomes delivered by commissioned services.

The role of design thinking in commissioning

Good policy should be informed by deep knowledge of the contexts and clients for which that policy is being made. Design thinking can be thought of as an increasingly significant branch of evidence-based policy making.

Policy designers must be socially perceptive when gathering evidence and politically savvy when deploying it. Design thinking can contribute to improved use of evidence in policy making and in program implementation. For a design thinker, one of the most important skills is to imagine the world from multiple perspectives such as clients, service users and customers.

This is where greater empathy for different perspectives emerges.

Focusing on the lived experiences of service users can facilitate better policy making. It can also lead to implementation of programs that enhance public value.

Five techniques to apply design thinking

1. Environment scanning

  • Identifies trends influencing future outcomes.
  • Gathers, synthesises and interprets information, shifting attention to new opportunities, threats, and potential blind spots.
  • Assists with commissioning, by improving knowledge of policies and programs that work across contexts and factors shaping success.

2. Participant observation

  • Observing people and their behaviour as they engage with a service.
  • Empathy is critical to effective observation.
  • Helps understand the effect that a policy has on individuals and groups.

3. Open-to-learning conversation

  • Encourages divergent thinking.
  • Creates new options and questions the fundamental basis of existing structures.
  • Improves the ability of policy designers, service managers, and clients to understand each other’s concerns.

4. Mapping

  • Explores the links between design and implementation.
  • Visualises connection and emerging patterns.
  • Journey mapping illustrates the user experience from beginning to end.
  • Assists commissioning by allowing policy designers to identify what’s working, what’s not and priorities for improvement.

5. Sensemaking

  • Connections are made using visual organisation.
  • Once data and insights are externalised (eg post it notes), visual organisation can identify explicit and implicit relationships.
  • Encourages policy designers to work with service managers and clients and take cues from observed practices.

The bottom line

Governments everywhere will always face pressures to provide more and better services to citizens.  Commissioning of service provision can produce sustained social and economic outcomes. Commissioning arrangements can also promote more engagement between traditional policy developers and local service managers. Paying more attention to how policies shape local interactions among service providers and citizens is key to achieving better outcomes.

Want to read more?

Improving commissioning through design thinking – Michael Mintrom and Madeline Thomas, Policy Design and Practice, Published online: 7 January 2019

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