Design thinking in policymaking processes: Opportunities and challenges

ANZSOG researcher Joannah Luetjens has recently published on the application of design thinking to policymaking. Here she uses The Australian Centre for Social Innovation's Family by Family program as a case study to show how design thinking aims to connect with populations and understand how they engage with their world.

The theory and practice of public administration is increasingly concerned with the role of the citizen. Scholars and commentators have pointed to a gap between what governments do and what citizens expect from government. In complex systems, the best intentions often have unintended consequences. This issue is not exclusive to Australia. In an era of ‘wicked’ problems and increasing complexity, governments around the world are seeking new approaches to understanding policy problems, developing solutions, and improving decision-making.

Design thinking offers a powerful way to navigate this complexity. At its heart, design thinking involves empathetic engagement with the clients of government services.  Too often in the past, government policymakers have lost perspective on the tough challenges that face people in their everyday lives. Those challenges rarely fall into neat little packages that can each be addressed by a different government department. 

While policy development is a design activity, it is rarely spoken about in design terms. This is something that Professor Michael Mintrom and I remedy in our latest publication. We define design thinking as a problem solving approach characterised by curiosity and empathy which seeks to interpret how target populations engage with their world.

Elements of design thinking have long been applied in social science research and in public administration. What is new is how those elements are now being combined to produce powerful insights into citizen actions and their interactions with governments. Our article gives examples of recent design thinking and its policy implications in both Australia and New Zealand. For example, The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) was tasked by the South Australian Government to assist families experiencing difficulty. Using design thinking strategies, such as Open-To-Learning Conversations, TACSI developed the Family by Family program by explicitly asking people experiencing difficulties: ‘How can a new service enable more families to thrive and fewer to come into contact with crisis services?’ The resulting program puts families at the centre and offers something that professional services can't: human connections and relationships.



Family by Family links families that are seeking to change something in their lives with families that have successfully overcome difficult times and are prepared to share their knowledge with others. The family-to-family linkages can last anywhere from 3-6 months and begin with both families setting goals for their involvement in the program. The pairs of seeking and sharing families then organise themselves depending on the goals that they have set. Making and sustaining these different goals requires a change in participants' values, beliefs, attitudes, and how they interpret a particular situation. This peer to peer learning model of family support seeks to address the growing demand on crisis services and the increasing number of families that are unable to manage chronic stress and isolation.

Social interventions of this sort are not easy to do. Whenever people face an unexpected dilemma it is common to search for solutions that are familiar to them. This can create both conceptual and practical traps. It is much harder – but potentially much more productive – to look past and challenge the existing solutions. Challenging the existing choice set is an essential component of Open-To-Learning conversations. This, along with other approaches informed by design thinking, is critical to the success of Family by Family. Open-To-Learning conversations require people to go against their natural tendency. They require people to go beyond the obvious and the incremental.

Following initial success in Adelaide, with an unprecedented return on investment estimated as $7 for every dollar spent, this program has been extended to New South Wales. In addition, the peer to peer learning model is now being considered with respect to refugees and migrant resettlement, domestic violence, social isolation and exclusion, substance use, disability, and dealing with behavioural issues.

At present, design thinking in the public sector is varied and scattered. It is being pursued in one way or another across a range of government agencies. This can lead to implementing design thinking for the wrong reasons, or with unrealistic expectations. Professor Mintrom and I demonstrate what works with design thinking and why. We offer lessons for those seeking to integrate design thinking into policy development.

Reference: Mintrom, M. and Luetjens, J. (2016) Design Thinking in Policymaking Processes: Opportunities and Challenges. Australian Journal of Public Administration. doi:10.1111/1467-8500.12211.

Posted by @MsSophieRae