Experiences of Policy Lab

Between January and May 2019, Anne Spaa spent several months working as an intern within the UK Policy Lab as part of her PhD research. In this blog post she reflects on her time in this unique space at the intersection of design and government.

As part of my PhD Research in Design, I spent a few months on placement at UK Policy Lab early 2019. I worked as one of the junior policy designers to experience how they develop policy concepts as inspiration for policy development.

In this blog, I reflect on four forms of making I’ve seen Policy Lab use in their work. I look at them with a designer’s eye, to foreground how I understand policymaking as a making practice.

1) Making to get an overview of policy practices

2) Making templates for a design thinking approach to open policy making

3) Making together to help policymakers bring in new ideas

4) Making to trigger inspiration on how to approach a policy problem

A speculation: Making to develop policy with the practices of design

1) Making to get an overview

During my time at Policy Lab, I primarily worked on the Youth Consultation Project. This project explored how young people could get more involved in government consultations. In government consultations, policymakers reach out to get feedback from stakeholders and citizens on their policy proposals [https://www.gov.uk/search/policy-papers-and-consultations?content_store_document_type%5B%5D=open_consultations&order=most-viewed, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/100807/file47158.pdf]. This often includes an online survey open to everyone and stakeholder events during which the policy team engages with organisations and individuals directly.

Starting this project on how to involve young people in the consultation process, Policy Lab conducted a series of interviews with policymakers to hear about their experiences of conducting a consultation process. Central to this interview were a set of hexagonal tiles representing the different processes and milestones of the consultation process. With this tool, the participating policymakers could see the whole process in one, which for some of the interviewees was the first time.

The consultation journey mapping tool:

opyright: UK Policy Lab (https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2019/10/28/lab-long-read-policy-consultations-part-1-mapping-the-process/, nov 22)

This set was called the consultation journey map [https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2019/10/28/lab-long-read-policy-consultations-part-1-mapping-the-process/], and was developed by Policy Lab prior to the project. During the interview sessions, Policymakers refined the tool based on their personal experiences of conducting a consultation. From these interviews and the use of the journey tool Policy Lab, in turn, learned about lived experiences of policymakers and nuanced practice of government consultation.

By designing this journey map tool to guide the interviews and adapting this tool based on the experiences of policymakers, this form of making can help policymakers to get an overview of the process they will go through. For designers, these overviews can help to find ways how to strategically and tactically apply design skills to inform policymaking. (318words)

The use of the journey map during the interviews, eventually led to the design of this government consultation flow-chart:

Copyright: UK Policy Lab (https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2019/10/28/lab-long-read-policy-consultations-part-1-mapping-the-process/, Dec 16)

On to the next form of making then…

2) Making templates for a design thinking approach to open policy making

I’ve just mentioned how design can find its ways into policymaking. Policy Lab has found how this can be a particularly strong in the case of open policymaking – a form of policy making that strongly shares values with the design practice: being human-centered, iterative, open to experimentation and collaboration, etc.

Under the motto ‘government’s first’ Policy Lab develops and tests design tools and methods appropriated to the policy profession. When these proof to be versatile enough for different policy contexts, tools make it to the Open Policy Making Toolkit (link to OPMT). This way design methods find their way into open policy making.

During my time at Policy Lab, I observed how one of these tools was trialed during the consultation project. This one drew specifically on the growing interest in ‘embodied’ exercises: Rather than mapping topics and interest groups on paper, the participants of the co-design were asked to give themselves a name-tag in the form of a policy issue of their interest. They were then asked to find one (and later two) people with whom they thought they could collaborate based on their policy issues. During this process, the facilitating policy designer asked participants to list two to three reasons why collaboration between these policy issues would be valuable.

Where this tool might seem extremely light-touch, in a climate of policymaking where cross-government work is still rare, such an embodied mapping exercise might become a valuable tool to find shared topics between ministerial departments and be the trigger for cross-departmental work. (253 words)

3) Making together to help policymakers bring in new ideas

Policy Lab tends to explain their process to their clients and collaborators by introducing the double diamond process (https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2018/04/27/positive-engagement/). In the ‘development’ phase of this visual metaphor, co-design is a form of making that Policy Lab uses in collaboration with policymakers and stakeholders of the projects. Whereas in design research, as researching designers we tend to stand back in co-creation and co-design sessions, as a junior policy designer I became an active part in this part of the process!

There are few tools from the Open Policy Making Toolkit that support this phase. Upon reflection, this makes sense: there might not be a need for design-inspired tools when the designers are part of the team. Instead of templates, I sat down with the participants to question further. To spark their imagination, help them design a complete concept, and be the note / visual thinker when necessary. Our expertise as professional designers became part of the youth consultation project. We changed our roles in the process, moving from being facilitators into partners. We use our experience in design to help policymakers think in new ‘ideas,’ ‘concepts’ and ‘prototypes’, often beyond the initial imagination of policymakers and stakeholders. (203 words)

Presenting the insights on government consultation from the policymaker interviews to the participants of the co-creation weekend. Image copyright: UK Policy Lab (https://twitter.com/SanjSab/status/1102237244071600128/photo/2)

4) Making to trigger inspiration

As Policy Lab aims to inform the development of the open policymaking practice with designer tools and methods, it was not much of a surprise to see the participatory approaches find their way into their practice. Therefore, when I saw – to be honest just after I had finished my placement – some of the speculative design work done by one of the junior policy designers, I was thrilled!

Most designers that work for the civil service work in the implementation phase of the policy development cycle. The designers that work at Policy Lab as policy designers often work at the very start of the cycle. With the insights gained, challenges set, and ideas generated – which cover the first three parts of the double diamond (diagnose, discover, and define) – the policy designers go to work developing the ideas into provotypes that can be discussed with people who will be impacted by the policy.  The provotypes are not intended to become the actual policy implementation.

Instead, together with the feedback from citizens, these provotypes are a growing contribution to the final deliverables of Policy Lab. Where the insights from ethnographic work with citizens bring insight on the policy topic, the design thinking process with policymakers and stakeholders bring reflection on the process, the provotypes aims to trigger the imagination of policymakers in further stage of the policymaking process.

Although finished designs, the thoughts they elicit aim to move the process into its development phase.

Provotypes for a project on Maritime 2050 which explores the future of maritime policy when autonomous vehicles become reality. The flags trigger debate on whether,“if digital communications break down, will autonomous vessels need to winch up traditional flags to ask for help?” Copyright: UK Policy Lab. Text and image: https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2019/09/23/signals-of-change-using-speculative-design-to-anticipate-regulatory-needs/.

One more form of making…

Over the two months that I worked as a junior policy designer, I came to understand the significant role making has in the practice of Policy Lab. Regularly returning to their office for my follow up study with policymakers, I realised there is one more form of making that I hope Policy Lab can develop.

After their work with Policy Lab, policy professionals move their work into the policy development phase. With the citizen feedback, design thinking insights, and provotypes in their pocket, the process facilitated by the policy designers is now fully handed over to the policy team. Hopefully, the work done with Policy Lab will inspire and help to imagine ideas for policy action, informing the policy development phase.

What really happens in the development phase, is a blackbox to designers working for government.

What if the policy designer stays on as part of the policy team? At the very end of this blog I therefore want to speculate briefly on this fifth form of making in policy.

A speculation: The designer in the policy development phase

The Policy Lab project has finished, and the policy team moves on to the development phase. The policy designers – part of Policy Lab – moves along with the process and becomes an integral part of the policy team.

Their work now focuses on using their design expertise to explore and refine options for policy action.

The impact of policy designers on the development phase might therefore be to keep the potential impact of policy actions at the center of the process. Using their design expertise to build and test the policy ideas, the values of open policy making of being human-centered, iterative, and open to experimentation and collaboration, can find their way into the process.