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The twin faces of public sector design: policy design and design thinking


Design thinking has become a popular approach for governments seeking to address complex governance challenges. It offers novel techniques and speaks to broader questions of who governs and how they govern. But how effective is juxtaposing design thinking with policy design?

At a glance

In a paper for the journal Governance, Amanda Clarke (Carleton University) and Jonathan Craft (University of Toronto) discuss the twin faces of public sector design. Design is a central concern of governance from the design of public institutions to programs and services. The emergence of design thinking has called into question established governance institutions and practices. It claims to offer an alternative style of cognitive processing and a different approach to problem definition and resolution.

Design thinking privileges interdisciplinary approaches, systems thinking, iteration and experimentation, creativity and risk taking. It also has an institutional form with design units being established within governments, such as innovation labs, design hubs and digital transformation offices. With its origins lying outside the public sector, its principles and practices are not always fit for purpose.

The first face: policy design

Policy design is the deliberate attempt to define policy goals and consciously connect them to policy instruments intended to reach those goals. Three points are central to the policy design process:

  1. The purposeful nature of policy design as an activity that aims to deliberately improve policy making outcomes.
  2. Its emphasis on the types, selection and effects of policy instruments with a tailored approach to policy design rather than a one‐size‐fits‐all.
  3. Its focus on the actors involved in design and an evolving role for the state with new forms of citizen and third sector engagement.

The second face: design thinking

Design thinking has primarily developed outside the field of policy studies, originating in the discipline of design itself and further developed in the field of business management.

Within both these disciplines, design thinking has a common set of characteristics:

  • It can be applied to products, strategies, organisations, systems, services and policies.
  • It has a more interpretative, intuitive mindset rather than an analytical‐logical mindset.
  • The perspectives of stakeholders and the experiences of users are primary inputs to the design process.
  • There is an early open ended exploration of problems and solutions as well as iterative prototyping.

Problem exploration involves deep research into users, their context, and their lived experiences with services, organisations, processes and products. It draws on a range of methodologies including ethnographic research, service journeys, behavioural insights, environmental scanning and mapping.

Problem definition work then leads to generating a range of possible solutions, drawing on user experiences and a range of stakeholder perspectives. This step is sometimes termed ideation. Once possible solutions are identified, the designer prototypes and tests solutions, engaging users to identify which is optimal prior to wider implementation. This final stage calls the designer to “think through doing” in partnership with users.

Design thinking has recently migrated into the public sector as an emerging field of practice, typically as part of innovation agendas. There are specialised innovation labs and hubs that draw on design thinking and methodologies, governed as public, quasi‐public, and private organisations. Examples can be found in Canada, France and the UK.

Where design thinking falls short

Both policy design and design thinking share the same objective:

  • to consciously and deliberately attain a public policy objective through applied problem solving.

However design thinking does not sufficiently account for four requirements of public sector design. These requirements are better addressed by traditional approaches to policy design.

The policy making dynamics that design thinking does not fully address are:

  1. The political context within which policy is made. Design thinking relies on the user experience as a primary input.  This user focus  is not always applicable or appropriate for all policy making contexts especially politically contentious issues. This is why design work is typically relegated to the implementation of policy objectives such as program and service delivery.
  2. The human, financial and organisational resources needed to support its practices. Design thinking may not be appropriate for all policy contexts given the sequencing, time horizons, and resource intensity it requires.
  3. The diversity and range of policy styles and governance arrangements in a policy sector, jurisdiction, and policy problem. Policy design offers an expanded menu of approaches compared to design thinking.
  4. The ability to address policy complexity when multiple policies, policy aims and policy instruments operate concurrently.

What this means

Design thinking is not a wholesale replacement for policy design work. Instead it should be seen as complementing traditional approaches, supporting practices that are more agile, collaborative and systems based. Its application is best suited to public policy problems that are clearly defined and at the stage of implementation.

Want to read more

The twin faces of public sector design  – Amanda Clarke and Jonathan Craft, Governance, Volume 32 – Issue 1, January 2019

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