What happens when design meets power?

Jenny LewisJenny M Lewis

Article title: ‘When design meets power: Design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking’ (by Jenny M Lewis, Michael McGann and Emma Blomkamp) in the special issue: Improving public policy and administration: exploring the potential of design’.

Governments around the world have been experimenting with ‘design thinking’ approaches to test new policy solutions. In our recent article in Policy & Politics, we argue that policymakers need to learn how to incorporate the insights and practices from design thinking into policy. But designers also need to learn how to deal with the politics of the policy process. If both of these things happen, there should be significant benefits for policy design and all those affected by it.  

Design is at the forefront of many of the latest attempts by governments to increase the innovation capacity of the public sector. Firms that offer ‘human-centred design’ are springing up everywhere, and they are growing in size as well as numbers. Small groups are being incorporated into large consultancy firms, as governments embrace this move and seek to fill the demand for people who can help them do this work. But what is really new about design thinking? How does it compare to other approaches to policymaking? And does it have an impact on policymaking in practice?

Our article on what happens when design thinking comes into contact with power and politics, highlights some major challenges. However, we also find that there are many opportunities for design thinking and policymaking to work together. Design thinking incorporates imagination, creativity and playfulness in a way that more traditional, rational approaches, and also more participatory approaches to policymaking, have struggled to do. Design thinking recasts policymaking as a more reflexive, uncertain and ambiguous process than is typically portrayed in policy handbooks. This alternative approach to policymaking has not yet been fully embraced by governments and other key policy actors.

Our empirical study of public sector innovation (PSI) laboratories in two nations made an attempt to understand what impact, if any, design thinking is having on policymaking systems in practice. PSI labs are now centrally positioned in many governmental systems and they are seen as providing opportunities for improving policy design. But they have not yet had major impacts on changing policy practices and models for policy decision-making. Design-oriented approaches are certainly being applied as novel means for generating policy options, but less so in increasing creativity, or challenging and reshaping policymaking processes. The voices and forms of knowledge that take precedence in policy systems, and the broader range of policy design options available, will surely continue to shape and constrain policymaking, against the background policy context.

Design thinking’s strength in reframing problems and potential solutions, becomes its weakness when politics and political institutions are required to make a design work in practice. It faces a substantial set of challenges yet to be overcome if it is to produce the benefits that it promises. It has the potential to benefit governments wanting to address complex and open-ended challenges, but its practices don’t sit well with the constraints and realities of policymaking and politics. Design thinking for policy, and new modes for testing ideas associated with it such as PSI labs, have experienced a rapid rise. It is crucial to appreciate the complementarities and tensions between design thinking and policy design, so we can improve policy design in the future.

Jenny M Lewis is Professor of Public Policy and was the Founding Director of The Policy Lab, at The University of Melbourne, Australia (@JennyMLewis1)

See: https://findanexpert.unimelb.edu.au/display/person12755

She is the current President of the International Research Society for Public Management (@IRSPM) and a previous President of the Australian Political Studies Association. Jenny is the author of six books, and around 80 journal articles and book chapters, including two books on public sector innovation, and several recent articles on policy labs and policy design. A list of her publications can be found on Google Scholar: https://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=9A0NTCwAAAAJ

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Jenny M Lewis, Michael McGann and Emma Blomkamp (2019) ‘When design meets power: Design thinking, public sector innovation and the politics of policymaking‘ [Open Access], Policy & Politics, https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15579230420081

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

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

Improving public policy and administration: exploring the potential of design

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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