Seeing like a citizen: is co-design the best way to support vulnerable people

Co-design, co-production and other terms which emphasise that governments cannot solve social problems from a top down-perspective are becoming increasingly common place. However, given the power differences involved can we truly 'co-create'? Below, Mark Evens explores the emerging popularity of co-design. Professor Evans is the Director of the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis, University of Canberra. His piece originally appeared on the Policy Space.

New methodologies for facilitating meaningful citizen engagement have become increasingly important in a world in which the solutions to the critical public policy problems we face from austerity to climate change and from terrorism to social inclusion need to be co-produced with citizens. This blog focuses on the growing academic and practice-based interest in one particular method – co-design – and one specific ‘wicked’ problem – social exclusion – and assesses its’ contribution to progress. It argues that co-design has an essential role to play in building social capital amongst the hardest to reach members of our community. However, the success of co-design is all in the doing. Done badly it can exacerbate social exclusion and destroy trust systems; done well it can help stabilize turbulent lives, improve life chances and foster trust systems.

This blog draws on evaluation work conducted in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) on two specific pilot projects which have used the co-design method – the Department of Education’s “Home to Work” (H2W) project and the ACT’s “Strengthening Services for Families” (SSF) project. These projects illustrate both the strengths and the weaknesses of the method.

Why is co-design important?

The targeting and treatment of specific forms of social exclusion is more central to social policy debate than for many generations. This is reflected in dominant political narrations of “life chances” and the politics of inequality and, increasingly, in the combination of old and new methods of service delivery. For the old methods we see the resurrection of the 1960s social worker model now described as the case manager or lead or key worker wrapping personalized services around the citizen or family. The new elements can be identified with a systems approach to integrated case management and the increasing use of digital government both in the management of integrated support and in the facilitation of processes of co-production with the citizen. This is old wine in new bottles but with a twist – it places the targeted citizen or group (e.g. the family) at the centre of a co-designed and produced process of developmental learning. It seeks to co-design service provision through the sensibilities of the target audience. Most significantly it challenges the notion that government is the authority and recognizes that citizens are experts because they experience the service system in ways that only they can understand. Co-design strives to see like a citizen.

The decline in social capital – the networks of trust, mutual assistance and reciprocity that help connect us to the society that we live in – impacts most dramatically on people who suffer from multiple exclusions. These citizens are often (but not always) ‘bowling alone’ (Putnam, 2000) and the role of progressive social policy is to reconnect these citizens to society through the creation of new support networks. Co-design provides a method for reconnecting the most marginalised members of our society. In particular, it helps to address three evidence-based assumptions about citizens experiencing multiple needs and exclusions. First, the most socially excluded citizens are the least able to engage effectively with services. Second, they often combine a strong community identity (affiliation with place), limited positive connectivity with informal and formal support networks and a strong antipathy for government. Third, these citizens do not respond well to traditional service delivery methods and experience a range of problems in navigating and by implication accessing appropriate services across the system of support (see Fabian Society, 2010).

What is co-design?

As Box 1 illustrates, there is nothing new about the use of design thinking in the public sector. For example, the Design Council, formerly the Council of Industrial Design, was established by Winston Churchill’s wartime coalition government in 1944 “to champion great design that improves lives and makes things better”. But what does appear to be new is the multi-disciplinary nature of its recent development. Co-design, is now a hybrid concept that draws on:

  • product design thinking where design professionals seek to empower and guide users to solve design problems and refine existing products or invent new ones;
  • assumptions about what works in combatting social exclusion in social policy (e.g. personalisation, settled accommodation, simplification of service interactions…);
  • normative social science that focuses on identifying and removing barriers to citizen participation in society, the economy, or politics through various processes of empowerment (e.g. the literature on political participation or deliberative democracy); and,
  • citizen-centred thinking in public value management which argues that public intervention should be circumscribed by the need to achieve positive social and economic outcomes for the citizenry but, crucially what is and what is not public value should be determined collectively through inclusive deliberation (see Stoker, 2006).

Box 1. Selective list of governmental and non-governmental organisations devoted to design and innovation

  • Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation,
    Harvard University (US)
  • Australian Centre for Excellence in Public Sector Design – DesignGov (now closed)
  • Australian Centre for Social Innovation
  • Big Innovation Centre (UK)
  • Design Council (established in 1944) (UK)
  • Design for Europe
  • Design Manager’s Australia
  • Human Experience Lab, Public Service Division, Singapore
  • Integrated Design Commission South Australia now Office
    for Design and Architecture SA
  • Involve (UK)
  • Ministry of Technology, Denmark
  • MindLab in Denmark
  • NZ Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Research Centre
  • Public Policy Lab (US)
  • UK Cabinet Office Policy Lab
  • UNDP Development Unit, Knowledge and Innovation

These approaches have two core insights in common – that late modernity requires active citizenship and that citizens have unique insights and expertise to bring to collective problem-solving. Here we find a happy marriage with design thinking where it is generally recognized that the quality of design improves the more user interests are integrated into the design process. These insights have therefore galvanised innovation in service design, policy programming and governance practices, together with the proliferation of governmental and non-governmental organisations devoted to its application.

Design thinking then is about understanding the lives of others. It draws on ways of working that are commonplace in the design of objects and products and suggests that those ways of working could be applied to wider system and process design. Co-design tends to involve three stages of learning; all of which are iterative and require engagement and re-engagement between researchers, practitioners and citizens. The first involves establishing a shared representation of concerns and problems with the target group; it draws on evidence that is synthesized and tested for its robustness but it also generates a broad range of perspectives on an issue as seen by different citizens. This requires creating a learning environment that allows citizens to tell their own stories rather than making assumptions about their preferences. It is based on the observation that citizens never experience the delivery system as a whole; just pathways through the system. We therefore seek to understand the problem through the eyes of the user. It doesn’t require big numbers unlike a statistically significant survey but it does require spending quality time with a small number of participants, mapping their journeys, identifying obstacles and developing mitigating strategies.

The second stage it about creating a space where participants can imagine and progress towards a future rather than becoming trapped in past models or ways of thinking. It uses a creative design dynamic to encourage new ways of thinking based on good practices. Some of the techniques that can be used include getting practitioners to experience the world from the perspective of others, getting citizens to draw or capture in non-written form their perceptions of a better future and generally trying to encourage a freeing from past certainties and developing a space where creativity and learning, and taking risks, is encouraged.  Beyond these process elements this stage also involves a large scale search for alternatives, options and innovations that appear to address the issue in focus.

The third phase it about developing prototype interventions based on a joint commitment with key partners and developing appropriate rapid feedback research methods to support that dynamic. Here the logic is of a design experiment.  The experiment focuses on the design of an intervention as the core research problem. The experimental aspect of the method manipulates an intervention and observes it over an extended time period, usually in one location, until acceptable results emerge. The experiment progresses through a series of design-redesign cycles. There is feedback to the core participants so as the intervention unfolds the design adjusts to work in a particular context. Initially, the goal is success in a local and particular setting and that challenge is the focus of attention. The design experiment claims to provide an evidence base about ‘what works’ in the early stages of the development of an intervention; in addition, it may provide a staging post for a broader and more generalisable testin the future. The third stage can then revert to a more traditional experimental phase or evaluation phase where Randomised Controlled Trials or other robust forms of assessment judge the success of the intervention in a range of settings.

In summary then, the group of citizens with technical support scope and define the problem and identify the change objective to be produced; review the range of options to produce the change objective; choose the option to be pursued; design a prototype; pilot, monitor, evaluate and refine.

Does it work?

The evidence from the two ACT projects, H2W (aimed at long term job seekers) and SSF (for vulnerable families) is compelling. Outcomes for both groups of vulnerable citizens improved dramatically as a consequence of co-design processes. 64 per cent of H2W participants were placed in full-time employment. Double the number normally achieved through traditional methods of service delivery. All of the families with one exception were successfully stabilized, significant barriers to their ability to participate socially and economically were navigated and a recovery plan established.  The quality of mentoring and advocacy, and, the role of an escalation device that allowed participants to access specialist services helped to build the adaptive capacity of the families. This is probably the project’s greatest achievement; each of these families now has the capacity to respond to crisis, identify coping strategies and act upon them.

Governance gains can also be identified for both projects in terms of significant improvements in trust systems between government and citizen; the ability to identify barriers to action; develop joint mitigation strategies; and, foster better joint working between service providers in terms of service delivery, shared resources and learning and development. In short, co-design has led to better service design; it enhances trust in the broader system of governance and improves outcomes for vulnerable citizens.

What doesn’t work? Both projects exposed prevailing problems in the broader governance system as they were unable to circumvent traditional problems associated with place-based practices such as: reconciling differences in service culture and values at the system level and overcoming entrenched ways of working. As one of the family members’ put it, this is an example of a “perfect project in an imperfect service system”. The observation is apt and provides strong clues as to where change governance is required. The achievement of high quality outcomes requires not only strong trusting relationships between families and lead workers but strong trusting relationships system-wide.

Capturing the political and bureaucratic imagination

Co-design can radically improve the quality of life for vulnerable people. It can contribute to creating more active citizens, help manage complex problems in public service design and delivery, build new relationships and knowledge required for 21st century governance, and develop individual skills, confidence, and ambition. For these and other reasons, co-design has become an essential method for enhancing the quality of public policy-making and delivery. The latest interventions to support vulnerable families have captured the political imagination because they are achieving better outcomes at a significantly lower cost (see: Evans, 2013) and they are seizing the bureaucratic imagination because they compel service providers to work beyond their traditional boundaries, join-up through a systems approach, and share skills, resources and risk. However, it does require strong political support, the appetite to try something new and the capacity to share power. Most significantly it requires access to a skills base in design methods, advocacy and brokering that are not in plentiful supply in the public sector. Nonetheless, this is the stuff of effective future governance that places the citizen at the centre of a co-produced process of policy learning.


  • Evans, M. (2012a). Home to Work – An Evaluation. Canberra: DEEWR Innovations Fund. Available on-line at:
  • Evans, M. (2013), Improving services with families – a perfect project in an imperfect system. Canberra: ACTCSD. Available on-line at:
  • Fabian Society (2010), Hardest to Reach? The politics of multiple needs and exclusions. London: Fabian Society.