Design for Public Sector Innovation


There is a growing interest among governments and public sector organisations around the world in applying innovative practices and methods when developing policies, interventions and services. This includes the use of design thinking, behavioural insights, foresight and co-creation (OECD 2015).

There appears to be a desire among some governments and public sector organisations to use these methods as a pragmatic yet speculative approach to policy making as a counterpoint to the existing normative, ideological or utopian approaches (O’Rafferty 2015).

Using these methods in the development of policy or public services is in many cases a break from the traditional top-down approaches to policy that are guided by political expediency and technocratic methods. It has also been argued that the design of policy and public services could involve a greater emphasis on citizen participation and a wider democratic ethos. This would involve a shift in the policy process towards co-designing services with citizens and stakeholders and an increased role for design in policy formulation.

The rationale for using these design and innovation methods to support public sector innovation is threefold.

  • Firstly, they are informed by ethnography and other social science and this helps policy makers gain insights into human behaviours beyond what is normally gained through other methods such as surveys. These “thick data” insights into real behaviours in context help to augment behavioural insights and other forms of “big data”. In the professional design context, this approach is typically described as being user or human centred in the sense that services are designed with a deep understanding of human behaviour rather than around organisational interests.
  • Secondly, they can be used in combination with other forms of policy experimentation such as combining prototypes with randomised control trials (RCTs), pilots and field trials. The interest in combining these methods for evidence-based policy making is driven by the fact that RCTs and field trials describe the “what” and “why” of behaviour but not “how” services and interventions can be improved based on those insights.
  • Thirdly, they can be co-creative and this can, depending on context, provide greater levels of engagement with stakeholders that are typically found in existing consultative processes.

It is also important to stress that these methods should, where practical, involve the front-line staff that are involved in delivering services. The reason for this is two fold. Firstly it engages the deep insights these staff have gained through interacting with the public and other stakeholders. Secondly, by engaging staff at an early stage a sense of ownership and participation can be fostered and this helps reduce friction when it comes to scaling up and implementing new service models.


Policy labs

Drawing together these broad perspectives, it is important to examine the emerging practices that allow governments and public sector organisations to address complex policy challenges.

One of the characteristic trends within public sector innovation in the last decade has been the growth of “policy labs”, innovation units and iTeams. The term “policy lab” describes a variety of approaches and policy practices but a common characteristic is that these policy labs act as spaces where policy makers and service providers are engaging in co-creation of policies and public services. In general terms they support co-design of services and interventions with stakeholders, the use of visual methods to explore new concepts and iterative prototyping.

These labs are not driven by a single policy issue but have emerged partly as a response to the well documented barriers to innovation in the public sector. Early examples have included the Australian Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design, SITRA in Finland, Mindlab in Denmark, La Region 27e in France. The global network of labs is now spanning a wide range of innovative practices and approaches. For example:

  • Designing and co-creating solutions to solve specific policy challenges (e.g. MindLab, New York City Innovation Zone)
  • Engaging citizens, non-profits and businesses to find new ideas (e.g. 27eRegion, Seoul Innovation Bureau)
  • Transforming the processes, skills and culture of government (e.g. UK Policy Lab, PS21 in Singapore, DCC Beta)
  • Using foresight for wider policy and systems change (e.g. EU Policy Lab)
  • Redesigning existing services through the use of behavioural insights, UX and digital service design (e.g. UK Behavioural Insights Team, UK GDS)

A common aim of these labs is to co-develop policies while acting as a bridging mechanism between the citizen and the state. They also act as a bridging mechanism between the practices of policy formulation, policy framing and the activities of policy implementation.

While the global system of policy labs have some distinct and locally specific characteristics they perform similar functions. These include:

  • Service design and service redesign: By using service design tools and methods the labs explore different possibilities and desirable outcomes at the front end of public services.
  • Experimental approach: The labs typically allow for experimentation, such as through randomised control trials or service prototypes.
  • Governance orientation: Some labs work on governance systems in order to improve the functional and relational aspects of government. Typically the trend is towards creating new outcome-oriented operations, leadership and collaborative public service systems.
  • Co-creative and collaborative: Many of the labs apply co-design albeit at different levels of citizen engagement.
  • Finance: A smaller number of the labs, through specific mechanisms such as finance and investment, apply the learning from smaller scale experiments to develop large-scale impact. The general principle is to understand what works in a local context and scale that up for wider systemic change.

In a similar manner to other forms of social experimentation, policy labs are multi-stakeholder and operate across organisational boundaries. A number of the labs mentioned above exist within the civil service but other exist outside the civil service within intermediary organisations and universities.

Another common characteristic of policy labs is that while they apply approaches relevant to their respective policy domains they typically combine expertise in design, digital and data with the existing skills and knowledge that exist within the public sector organisation.

It is important to stress that these Policy Labs are not standalone creators of solutions but they provide a space where existing staff, stakeholders and citizens can co-create solutions together.


Contributing to the evidence-based policy debate

The discussion on policy labs and policy experimentation is more generally tied in with debates on evidence based policy. This often relates to the following two key issues

  • the qualities of appropriate evidence and how this evidence is applied systematically
  • the methods through which evidence is created (e.g. RCTs, service prototypes, data analytics)

The existing literature into the relationship between design and policy making, particularly from the political sciences, defines policy design in various ways that may seem intuitive or axiomatic to professional designers. For example, Dryzek and Ripley (2008) defined policy design as the “conscious invention, development, and application of patterns of action in problem resolution”. Howlett (Howlett, 2011) suggested that policy design can be considered as the ideal configurations of “policy elements” that are directed at achieving specific outcomes within a governance context and that “meta-policy designing” is the process by which these ideal types are identified and refined.

Lejano (2006) suggests that policy design is a dialectic between the “social construction” and “ecological adaptation” of policy or in other terms finding a balance between ‘principle’ and ‘context’. In this sense, policy design is much more than simple solutionism in that it considers the practices of policy making, framing of policy problems and the evaluation and learning mechanisms of policy makers.

To take this one step further and elaborate on the potential distinctiveness of design in this discussion, we can build on the principles contained in Flyvbjerg’s call for a phronetic social science. Flyvbjerg argued that social science had “failed as science” (Flyvbjerg, 2001). A key basis of Flyvbjerg’s argument was that social science had sought to emulate natural sciences and engineering in producing universal and context-independent models and theories. He argued that the dominant emphasis on scientific and technical knowledge (episteme and techne) was unable adequately to “capture the role of context, values and power in social life”.

Flyvbjerg drew on a number of theoretical perspectives when making his argument not least the Bourdieuian understanding that social behaviour draws its meaning from its temporal and social context. Flyvbjerg was arguing that instead of social science seeking to emulate the natural sciences or engineering in pursuit of episteme or techne, social science should seek to act as a form of phronesis for society. Importantly Flyvbjerg argued that phronesis is a form of practical wisdom originating from research in the “real world” and it should concern the analysis of values through deliberation, judgement and choice.

When we look to the emerging role of design in teh public sector we can see a number of potential benefits. These include the potential to work through a social practice lens and to develop ‘practical consciousness’ though the process of co-creation and experimentalism.

Despite these possibilities there is a risk that the design research and practice community will adopt a narrow instrumentalism. Hargraves (2011) suggested that a narrow instrumentalism can only facilitate incremental reforms that reproduce and reinforce particular realities, rather than question the dominant social conventions for example, those that may be the root causes of unsustainability. Blühdorn and Welsh (2007) described this dilemma in the environmental context as the risk of ‘a service-provider mentality’ that acts solely in the interests of weak ecological modernisation.