Introduction to the Special Issue on the potential of design to improve public policy and administration

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Arwin Van Buuren, Jenny Lewis, Guy Peters, William Voorberg

In recent years, policy makers and administrators have shown increasing interest in design approaches to address policy problems. Design methods offer innovative perspectives on persistent policy problems (e.g. climate change; ageing population; urbanization etc.). Given the enormous influx of design toolboxes, design approaches and design steps, there is a search for an ‘ultimate design approach for public sector problems. But there are different approaches that can be used and which have different strengths.

In our introduction to the special issue on design and public policy we distinguish three rather different design approaches in public sector design.  

1. Design as optimisation.

This approach is built on principles such as expertise, objectivity and rationality. Traditional ‘evidence-based’ policy-making is often based on these principles. Design is about finding the best solution to a specific problem, within limits and therefore it is about optimisation. Citizens or service-users are not generally part of the design process.

 2.  Design as exploration.

This approach is based on principles such as experimentation, ideation and exploration. This approach is drawing a lot of attention from policy makers and public servants, because it creates room for trial and error. In this approach, the design of public service or policy is still about finding the best solution to a problem, but the approach to finding this solution differs. Very often, citizens are involved as stakeholders in the design process to participate and test out newly developed services.

3. Design as co-creation (co-design).

This approach emphasises collaboration with many other actors (e.g. citizens, businesses, NGOs) in the formulation of policy or public services, and at every step of the design process, from problem definition to prototype formulation and testing.  Rather than creating evidence-based policy, this approach generates energy-based policy, in which stakeholders become shareholders of the policy problemIn doing so, this approach focuses not on finding the best (technical) solution to a certain problem, but rather the most legitimate solution.

Given the nature of policy problems, we presuppose that designing for complex policy problems may benefit from a combination of all three different design approaches. For instance, complicated technical aspects, such as what kind of alternative technology can be developed to reduce CO2 emissions, may benefit from a lot of technical expertise and substantial knowledge (‘design as optimization’). However, these technologies need to be applied in and fine-tuned for a specific political, policy and social context. Questions about who will cover the investment costs or what kind of efforts are required from other stakeholders such as businesses or citizens are just as important as having the suitable technology. Therefore, making these shareholders part of the design process (design as co-creation) is necessary to create the necessary social capital needed to organise support and ownership. Living labs and scenario drafting (design as exploration), where shareholders are challenged to think ‘outside-the-box’ and for the common interest, may be valuable tools to come up with innovative business models, instruments or arrangements that enable implementation. We argue that, given the nature of public sector problems, the quest for a suitable design approach for public policy problems should be about using different design approaches.

From a public policy and public administration perspective, the growing popularity of design thinking is important for the development of the field.  Following Herbert Simon, the public administration discipline has been repeatedly labelled as a design science, but it has often failed to live up to that promise. The question about the essential characteristics and building blocks of a design thinking approach for public administration and public policy is still unanswered. There are complementarities and tensions between policymaking and design thinking. Many governments are experimenting with design thinking approaches and are developing design labs or centres to introduce design methods and tools within their own context. At the same time, doing design in a public sector context gives rise to specific challenges. Within a public context, other conditions play a role compared to a private, market-oriented context. Politics but also legal principles, the need for accountability and public bureaucracies not only set specific conditions on processes of co-creation and co-design, but also limit the room for creativity. This also makes a more experimental approach to policy-making and service formulation difficult. In other words, the design space in a public context has its own, unique boundaries which are often more restrictive compared to a private context in which design thinking is commonly used to develop products and services. Reflecting upon what a public context implies for applying design-oriented methods and how these methods can become allied with the more analytical design tradition in the field are important challenges to be tackled in the coming years.

This special issue brings together a collection of papers that have taken design for public policy and administration seriously, in a variety of different and practical ways. The papers demonstrate that, not only are there many examples of design approaches being implemented, but that there is much to learn about how we make the best use of these to improve public policy and administration and the design of public services.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

van Buuren, Arwin; Lewis, Jenny; Peters, B Guy; Voorberg, William (2019) ‘Improving public policy and administration: exploring the potential of design‘, Policy & Politics,

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Policy design and the added-value of the institutional analysis development framework

Matching policy tools and their targets: beyond nudges and utility maximisation in policy design

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