Design science in public policy and administration research: how to actually apply it?

romme & meijer.pngGeorges Romme and Albert Meijer

Local, regional and national governments are struggling to find solutions for complex problems such as sustainability, quality of life, and poverty. Public policy researchers are therefore increasingly called upon to help in crafting solutions to these complex challenges. Accordingly, scholars in the field of public policy and administration need to rethink their usual ‘bystander’ approach to designing policy and, instead, engage more in experimentation and interventions that can help change and improve governance systems.  

Inspired by Herbert Simon’s book “The Sciences of the Artificial”, we contribute to this transformation in our recent Policy & Politics article by developing a so-called Design Science (DS) framework that integrates scientific validation and creative designOur framework involves four activities: creating, assessing, justifying and theorizing. A typical DS project involves processes that iterate back and forth between these four activities. We illustrate the merits and challenges of this DS framework by way of two case studies in the Netherlands. The first case shows that the initial energy and commitment arising from a deliberate DS intervention does not easily result in organisational changes and outcomes embraced by practitioners. Our second example, though, suggests that public institutions can be deliberately transformed, especially when key agents and stakeholders share a sense of urgency regarding the dysfunctionality of existing arrangements and engage in a collective effort sustained over several years. The efforts expected from researchers in these co-creation processes may, however, demand skills and competences that are radically different from those that researchers in our field usually learn.  

Design science thus appears to provide an effective way of integrating traditional science with intervention-oriented design work. Notably, we’re not arguing that all research needs to be DS-based. In this respect, studies of extant (public policy) settings are entirely legitimate, because they provide a deeper awareness and understanding of these settings. But, we do believe that the public policy and administration field can only grow if (at least a substantial number of) scholars rise to the challenge of making a difference, by deliberately engaging in attempts to co-create practices with citizens, administrators and politicians. If both the science and design tradition in our field is nurtured, many new opportunities will arise for impactful work at the interface between the two. 

Georges Romme is a professor in Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Eindhoven University of Technology (Netherlands) and has pioneered the methodology of design science in management and organization studies. Georges’ email address is a.g.l.romme@tue.nl and @GeorgesRomme is his twitter handle. Albert Meijer is professor of Public Innovation at Utrecht University (Netherlands), where he focuses on innovation and technology in the public sector. Albert’s e-mail address is a.j.meijer@uu.nl and his twitter handle is @albertmeijer. 

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Romme, A Georges L; Meijer, Albert (2019) ‘Applying design science in public policy and administration research‘, Policy & Politics, https://doi.org/10.1332/030557319X15613699981234

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

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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