When design meets power: design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking

Colouring in a light bulb.
  • Published Date: 18 October 2019

Responding to the need for innovation, governments have begun experimenting with ‘design thinking’ approaches to reframe policy issues and generate new policy solutions. But what is new about design thinking and how does it compares to rational approaches to policymaking?

At a glance

As part of an ANZSOG-funded research project, Jenny Lewis, Michael McGann and Emma Blomkamp (University of Melbourne) examine the impact of design thinking on policymaking in practice, using the example of public sector innovation (PSI) labs. Their paper in Policy & Politics draws on a survey of PSI labs in Australia and New Zealand. The paper concludes:

  • design thinking faces significant challenges when it comes in contact with power and politics
  • there are opportunities for design thinking and policymaking to work better together.

What is design thinking?

Design thinking can be loosely understood as a ‘human-centred’ approach to innovation drawing from the processes used by industrial and product designers. It is increasingly being used by organisations to address open-ended and complex challenges. At the same time, the field of industrial design has evolved design beyond a tool for developing consumer products into a process for the collaborative development of change.

Its proponents claim it can help solve contemporary policy challenges in areas as diverse as health, climate change and employment. For many working in policy, design thinking constitutes a ‘bottom-up’ approach where the gap between designers and citizens is narrowed through decisions being informed and even sometimes driven by those who are affected by policies.

Design thinking as an alternative approach to policymaking

Design thinking is based on a form of reasoning that moves beyond the analysis and problem solving often associated with the policy process. It uses analysis where complex situations are distilled through a process of insightful invention and discovery. For design thinkers, policy making should be guided by the values of empathy and curiosity and a focus on crafting new solutions with people, not just for them.

Proponents suggest a stark contrast between design thinking and traditional policy design approaches as depicted in policy handbooks. These handbooks look at policymaking as a coherent process of authoritative problem solving in which the government and its bureaucracies solve known problems. Models of the policy cycle often proceed sequentially from agenda-setting through policy analysis and formulation, decision-making, policy implementation to monitoring and evaluation.

Participatory models of policymaking come closest to the design approach. Creativity is central to design thinking, but it is also often linked to participatory approaches. Creative design tools can be used to facilitate a more collaborative approach by bringing different people and knowledge into the policy process.

PSI labs as ‘design-for-policy’ entrepreneurs

One of the ways in which design thinking is being taken up in practice in policy systems is through the spread of PSI labs.  Around 100 PSI labs have been established at various levels of government. There are also labs working extensively with governments that are not formally part of the public sector such as Nesta’s Innovation Lab, MARS lab in Toronto and GovLab in New York.

PSI labs can be understood as a kind of ‘design-for-policy entrepreneur’. They are entities whose contribution to policy systems lies in their capacity to develop creative policy solutions using design approaches and methods. They also promote design approaches and are driven by design entrepreneurs.

They are experimental in three related ways:

  1. As organisations with predominantly small-scale and nascent structures rather than mature entities.
  2. In their approaches and methods, combining a hybrid of digital, data science, and especially design-oriented methodologies such as human centred design and user ethnography.
  3. In policymaking with a shift towards more participatory forms of policymaking, emphasising the empowerment of citizens and the role of inter-organisational communities of practice.

Survey of Australian and New Zealand labs

A survey of PSI labs in Australia New Zealand was conducted in early 2018 to:

  • map the emerging landscape of PSI labs in these countries
  • understand the impact of design thinking on policy.

A total of 52 PSI labs responded to the survey:

  • 13 from New Zealand and 39 from Australia
  • 26 of the labs were based within various levels of government in Australia and New Zealand
  • 23 identified as non-government labs
  • 3 were ‘mixed organisations’ that operated as a partnership between government and a community sector or non-profit organisation.

Methods used by PSI labs

The methods frequently used by survey respondents confirmed the conceptualisation of PSI labs as design-for-policy entrepreneurs. About two thirds of these PSI labs reported using methods such as interviews or empathy conversations; systems thinking and mapping; citizen and stakeholder engagement; and user testing or prototyping.

Levels and stages

Less than 30% reported they frequently worked at the design-for-policy level ie. developing policy proposals and reforms. The labs surveyed predominantly concentrated on the earlier stages of the innovation cycle: identifying/scoping problems and generating ideas, followed by piloting and prototyping solutions.

Relationship to government

Government-based PSI labs were structurally located at varying levels (local, state, and national government) and in a range of different branches of government.  They were located across agencies or different levels of government. They reported a considerable degree of autonomy to determine their work priorities and projects.

Many non-government PSI labs rely on public funding, acting as quasi-public consultancies. Around 70 per cent indicated their projects originated from a government department or agency (state or federal level). One in four non-government labs also reported working on projects originating from the central branches of government.

What it means

The activities of PSI labs are predominantly concentrated at the front end of the policy and innovation cycles. The findings suggest PSI labs are generally working at the level of solving discrete service delivery problems rather than high-level policy development.

PSI labs may be helping to drive a more participatory and design-oriented approach to public service innovation, but they are still some distance from achieving wider impacts on policymaking. Opportunities to combine insights from design thinking into policy design could help to complement and improve on older forms of designing policy.

Want to read more?

When design meets power: Design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking – Jenny Lewis,  Michale McGann and Emma Blomkamp (2019), Policy & Politics, early view.

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.