The promise of co-design for public policy

people holding gears to fit them together.
  • Published Date: 24 March 2020

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?

At a glance

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.

Towards a definition of co-design

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:

  • community engagement
  • public participation
  • service design
  • policy development.

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:

  • The ‘co’ is typically considered an abbreviation for ‘cooperative’ or ‘collaborative’ design.
  • ‘Design’ draws on the discipline of industrial design.

Co-design and public policy

As a methodology for policy making, co‐design has three components:

  1. Process: iterative stages of design thinking, oriented towards innovation.
  2. Principles: people are creative; people are experts in their own lives; policy should be designed by people with relevant lived experience.
  3. Practical tools: creative and tangible methods for telling, enacting and making.

A design-led process

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.

Principles of participatory design

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.

Practical tools

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.

Claims about the benefits of co‐design

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.

The challenges of co‐design for policy

There are practical challenges and risks in applying co‐design in government:

  1. Diminished control over the project because other people, other departments or other organizations are involved.
  2. Increased complexity because the objectives and interests of diverse people, departments or other organisations must be managed and balanced.
  3. It can be time-consuming although the short‐term costs of participatory design are likely outweighed by the long‐term benefits.
  4. The gap between co‐design research and conventional forms of evidence.
  5. The legitimacy of co‐design activity as perceived by stakeholders and beneficiaries.

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.

What this means

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:

  • generate more innovative ideas
  • achieve economic efficiencies by improving responsiveness
  • foster cooperation between different groups
  • reinvigorate trust between citizens and public servants.

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.

Want to read more?

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.

Sign up to the bridge

Recent Research Briefs include: