Co-design ‘risks being little more than a buzzword’

By David Donaldson

Monday April 9, 2018

Business people meeting at office and use post it notes to share idea. Brainstorming concept. Sticky note on glass wall.

There is little evidence that co-design improves outcomes, or even a clear definition of what it is. A new paper explores some of the challenges for public servants.

It feels like co-design is everywhere these days.

It’s claimed to assist government with all manner of things — tapping into innovative ideas, ensuring policies and services match the needs of citizens, achieving efficiencies by improving responsiveness, fostering cooperation and trust, meaningfully engaging the ‘hard to reach’ and achieving support for change.

But there is little evidence it improves decision-making, warns Emma Blomkamp, research fellow at the University of Melbourne’s Policy Lab.

She does not take issue with the philosophy behind co-design — making government more democratic by allowing citizens to have a say on the policies and services that impact on their lives.

Instead, she argues that despite the many claims made about the value of co-design, very little rigorous evaluation has been done to show that it really does improve citizens’ lives.

It doesn’t help that at the moment there is no agreed definition of what exactly co-design is, with a range of different ideas and approaches floating around.

“Consequently, co-design risks being little more than a buzzword in the public sector,” she writes in the Australian Journal of Public Administration.

This is not to say that co-design doesn’t work — the problem is that we don’t yet know for sure. There is a lack of evidence around co-design in public policy, but the experience of fields such as medicine suggest giving users more meaningful input will probably be useful.

Working out whether and how co-design is successful is a job for evaluation, but Blomkamp’s examination of the idea points to some early lessons for public servants who want to enhance the input of the public in their work.

What is co-design?

Co-design, says Blomkamp, “signifies the active involvement of a diverse range of participants in exploring, developing, and testing responses to shared challenges”.

It is based on some key principles: people are creative, people are experts in their own lives, and policy should be designed by people with relevant lived experience. Though experts play an important role in the public sector, they are not necessarily well-placed to know users’ diversity of experience.

In terms of process, co-design tends to involve iterative stages of design thinking and be oriented towards innovation, and captures users’ experiences and ideas through creative and tangible methods for telling, enacting, and making.

It’s related to a few other ideas like participatory design and deliberative democracy, which have been around for a few decades.

While co-design can in theory take place at any stage of a design process, in practice it tends to occur at the start, to help government understand what the problem is. It is also used more often with small groups based in a particular location, as it can be challenging to scale up.

Overcoming the power imbalance

There are some questions public servants can ask themselves about how they’re implementing co-design.

One of the biggest challenges for government is giving up some of the control it is used to exercising. Co-design entails public servants moving from the position of “prima donna” to facilitator, a shift some will find uncomfortable and may resist.

Co-design is distinct from simply asking users for their opinion — there is little point in the exercise if the substantive decisions have already been made or users are not given the opportunity to have proper input. Overcoming the power imbalance between government and the community — which continues to exist despite any rhetoric, and can easily reassert itself — takes serious commitment.

“It is about generating and testing new solutions to public problems, not merely offering creative approaches to consultation or ‘co-production’ at the stage of delivery,” Blomkamp notes.

“Co-design thus challenges conventional approaches to planning and policy making, as it requires wide input into problem definition and the development of solutions, rather than merely offering the opportunity for citizen or stakeholder feedback once a policy or plan has been formulated by specialist professionals.”

So what happens if the co-design process throws up a solution that’s different to what the government thinks it should be?

Awkwardly for Jay Weatherill, South Australia’s nuclear fuel cycle citizens’ jury did just this when they said they didn’t want a nuclear waste dump in their state, despite the then-premier’s support for the idea. Weatherill had little choice but to dump the proposal after its rejection by such a high-profile deliberative process, but government ignoring consultations that return answers they don’t like can damage public or stakeholder trust.

While most co-design processes won’t deal with such controversial problems, genuine engagement holds out the possibility the public might demand something the government doesn’t want to give, so any move towards co-design should take this into account.

Who gets to speak?

The other big question is whose voice is being heard.

One of the important functions of bureaucracy is to serve as insulation from vested interests. This does not mean their voices should not be heard — they are stakeholders, after all, and can help improve government — but that they should not have undue influence. Opening up government through co-design increases the risk that well-organised interests can hijack the process.

Even among members of the community, however, not everyone has equal capacity to engage with government and articulate their needs. Governments need to be careful they’re not just engaging those who are already most influential or best off. Previous surveys suggest government is not very good at this, and tends to engage those already known to it.

Great promise for policy

Nonetheless, Blomkamp thinks that as a means of engaging citizens and improving complex services, co-design “holds great promise for policy”.

If it can achieve even some of the benefits it is claimed to, “then governmental organisations and policy workers should be exploring ways to adopt and embed this practice,” she says.

“It remains unclear, however, whether co-design can feasibly leap from designing programmes and services to developing and implementing public policies.

“… The challenges of the governmental context may make it difficult to achieve the potential outcomes of co-design in practice, yet its radical potential to transform the process and outcomes of policy making warrants further exploration.”

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