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The business of Design for Policy

The business of Design for Policy

24 November 2014 Written by By Jonathan Norman Publisher, Gower Publishing

Jonathan Norman is a publisher at Gower with extensive experience compiling collections examining new ways of working in the public sector, including design, management and policy. Here Jonathan talks about how design is useful to policymakers and a new book Design for Policy, the first ever publication on this topic edited by Christian Bason, CEO of the Danish Design Centre. 

Public policy is difficult or rather it’s complex. It can be extraordinarily challenging, although crucial, to try to see the immediate correlation between policy initiatives and outcomes when the linkages between thought, action and outcome are rarely apparent until after the event. Even then, there are plenty of examples of unintended consequences or unsustained programmes that have run out of steam before delivering their benefits, which makes it even harder to find simple examples of what works and why. 

This complexity is a concept with which organisations and business have been familiar for some time. They have embraced concepts such as agile project management, service design or co-creation. These are methodologies with two shared elements at their heart: a process of iteration,  which involves learning through continual testing, plus close involvement with the end-users, the customers or the stakeholders at every stage.  And they are as much about the human and social sciences as about strategy, structure and control. 

Projects are essentially social interventions, conceived, designed, led and delivered for society through people.

Dr David Hancock

The challenges of complexity in the public sector are well-documented, for example by Dr David Hancock who is an author, civil servant and expert in risk management. He argues:

“Projects are essentially social interventions, conceived, designed, led and delivered for society through people." 

Rather than project risk management continuing to remain inward looking and reliant on engineers and mathematicians to improve its principles and processes, I would like to see it become more outward looking – embracing scholars and practitioners from non-scientific disciplines such as sociology, philosophy and behavioural sciences for its future.(1)

In a new book Design for Policy Christian Bason and his team of co-authors (2) suggest that design offers ways to bring more open creative approaches to complex problems in the public sector, particularly policymaking. The book is the first ever publication to look at the growing use of design in the policy process, charting its emergence and use in different places internationally. 

The value of design for policy makers lies in its role to link policy vision to implementation on the ground. The thinking and research tools associated with design enable policymakers to gather data and make sense of the root causes and the connections. The elements of facilitation associated with design can help stimulate individual and group creativity and, finally, the concepts, graphics and maps allow us to make experience tangible and to make the services associated with any policy attractive and appealing.

The thinking and research tools associated with design enable policy makers to gather data and make sense of the root causes and the connections.

The purpose at the heart of the contributions in Design for Policy (Bason, 2013) is to encourage policymakers to see policy making and policy implementation as a single, interconnected process. Once we are comfortable with that idea then policy is no longer something that is devised and then delivered or planned and then imposed. The process of policymaking is exactly that of iteration and involvement that is already so familiar to organisations planning a new software product or implementing a business change. 

Design for policy does not make the process of designing public policy any less difficult or complex. Some commentators to the new book argue that the political, ideological and somewhat abstract nature of public policy makes it fundamentally unsuited to design practices. And design certainly doesn’t guarantee the outcomes of the policy making process. On the other hand, the tools and elements that it brings to the table do provide the opportunity to bring together the rational world of analysis, deduction and control with the human world inhabited by the people that are affected by policy decisions. And crucially design helps to tie policy development better to policy implementation. 


1. David Hancock, 2010, Tame, Messy and Wicked Risk Leadership, Farnham, Gower.

2. Christian Bason (editor), 2014, Design for Policy, Farnham, Gower.

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