Design in public administration: a typology of approaches

hermus et al pic.pngMargot Hermus, Arwin van Buuren & Victor Bekkers  

The idea that public policies and services are in need of improvement or even innovation is widespread: they need to be more efficient and effective, because of financial pressures, but we also want them to be more responsive and tailor-made to citizens’ needs. One proposed solution is the introduction of design in public administration practice. This means that policies and services are seen as objects that are designed consciously to meet certain goals and/or requirements, rather than changed incrementally or negotiated politically. Thus far, the discussion surrounding design centres on its potential benefit and desirability in a public sector context. However, in our recent article in Policy & Politics, we focused on the unanswered questions regarding the way design is currently used. In what ways is design applied? With what goals? And what types of artefacts are being devised? With these questions in mind, we conducted a systematic literature review looking at applications of design in journal articles published in public administration journals between 1989 and 2016.  

In our analysis of public sector design processes, we distinguish between two main types of design approaches: those that are more informational in nature and those that are more inspirational. Informational approaches adhere closely to a scientific ideal of design: designs are based on evidence, on what worked in the past and will work in the future. Scientists bring their knowledge and their (analytical) methods to ensure that that public policies and services are designed according to the latest insights, using optimal methods and procedures. By contrast, inspirational approaches focus on the experiences of users, aiming to include their knowledge and integrating varying perspectives on the problem. Rather than deriving the design from existing knowledge, data and methods, inspirational approaches intend to generate new knowledge, understandings and possibilities by embracing creativity and experimentation. We found that design processes commonly focus on new ideas or (sources of) knowledge, a better understanding of the situation in which the design is applied, or on the implementation phase of the design process. Taken together, this results in six different approaches to design in a public administration context, summarised in table 1 and explained further in our article.

Table 1: different approaches to design in public administration

KNOWLEDGE-FOCUSED Theory-driven design Synthesis-oriented design
SITUATION-FOCUSED Evidence-driven design User-oriented design
IMPLEMENTATION-FOCUSED Consensus-driven design Change-oriented design

In a way, design is about the coupling of a solution to a problem – which can be done in different ways. Knowledge-focused approaches can ensure policies and services are designed according to the newest ideas. However, they can prove difficult to implement, since the design process takes place outside of traditional political and bureaucratic processes. Implementation-focused designs are more often implemented, but they lack the innovative capacities of the other approaches. Creative and collaborative approaches speak to the ambition to use design to develop policies and services to tackle wicked problems in a responsive manner, but their impact on both public administration practice and research so far seems limited.

The significance of our research for the field is to provide a typology of design approaches to serve as a basis to systematically develop and refine them in order to discover the conditions under which different approaches can exploit the potential of design in public administration.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Hermus, Margot; van Buuren, Arwin & Bekkers, Victor (2019) ‘Applying design in public administration: a literature review to explore the state of the art‘, Policy & Politics,

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

Improving public policy and administration: exploring the potential of design

Using a design approach to create collaborative governance

Applying design science in public policy and administration research

Challenges in applying design thinking to public policy: dealing with the varieties of policy formulation and their vicissitudes

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