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?
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.
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:
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:
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.
Both policy design and design thinking share the same objective:
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:
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.
The twin faces of public sector design – Amanda Clarke and Jonathan Craft, Governance, Volume 32 – Issue 1, January 2019
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This research brief originally appeared in The Mandarin as part of The Mandarin and ANZSOG's ongoing special Research Series and featured in The Drop – ANZSOG and the Mandarin’s research newsletter. Sign up to receive The Drop.