Co‐design holds great promise for policymakers. It can generate innovative ideas, foster cooperation and meaningfully engage the hard to reach. But does it deliver on this promise?
In a paper for the Australian Journal of Public Administration, Emma Blomkamp (University of Melbourne) explores co‐design in public policy. As a novel method for engaging citizens to find solutions to complex problems, co‐design can potentially improve policy processes and outcomes. But there are challenges that question the feasibility of achieving these outcomes.
Co‐design is a distinct set of principles and practices for understanding problems and generating solutions. It signifies the active involvement of a diverse range of participants in exploring, developing and testing responses to shared challenges.
In the public sector, co‐design is often seen as a more effective alternative to conventional approaches in:
When co‐design is loosely defined as any type of collaborative or participatory activity, almost everyone seems to be doing it. A clear and shared definition is lacking.
A simple way to understand co‐design is to break it down into its parts:
As a methodology for policy making, co‐design has three components:
Design thinking is an iterative, human‐centred and action‐oriented process for innovation. Defining co‐design as a design‐led process highlights its use as a methodology for innovation. It is about generating and testing new solutions to public problems, not just offering creative approaches to consultation or ‘co‐production’ at the delivery stage.
Co‐design is underpinned by participatory design. Applied to policy, this means enabling or empowering people affected by a policy issue to contribute to its solution. As experts in their own experiences, citizens and stakeholders should be involved in designing services and policies that relate to those experiences.
Co‐design uses practical tools to generate and test ideas. There are three main techniques: telling, enacting and making. This can include diaries, collages, card sorts, model building, mapping and roleplaying. This is different from deliberative approaches to policymaking which focus on telling with very little enacting or making.
In the public sector, co‐design is seen to improve idea generation, service delivery, project management and longer‐term outcomes. These benefits are in relation to product and service design but are often extended to policy design. However, many of the claims have not been rigorously evaluated.
The lack of published evaluations of co‐design in public policy limits knowledge sharing and evidence building. However, there is evidence from other fields including healthcare, urban planning and the private sector. For example, applying a participatory design approach in healthcare to improve the patient experience has increased efficiency across the health system in the United Kingdom and Australia.
There are practical challenges and risks in applying co‐design in government:
A significant challenge is the structure and culture of government is not suited to co‐design. Policy officials do not respond well to the risks of diminished control and increased complexity, while bureaucratic systems are not designed to be experimental or responsive.
The challenges of government may make it difficult to achieve the potential benefits of co‐design in practice. Yet its potential to transform the process and outcomes of policymaking warrants further exploration.
Co‐design holds great promise for policy. It may help to:
If co‐design can achieve some of these benefits, then public sector organisations and policymakers should be exploring ways to adopt and embed this practice. Further research and evaluation is needed to strengthen what co‐design in policy means in practice and the benefits it brings to participants, policymakers and the people they serve.
The promise of co‐design for public policy – Emma Blomkamp, Australian Journal of Public Administration, March 2018, 77(4), pp. 729-743.
This Research Brief is written by Maria Katsonis as part of ANZSOG’s new research translation series, The Bridge. This project is designed to bridge the gap between the research work of academics and the policy work of public managers by providing access to visible and accessible high-quality research. The Bridge is emailed fortnightly to thousands of engaged readers and centers around a Research Brief which distills academic research into an easy-to-read format.
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