What if public policy sparked imagination and joy like the newest theme park, celebrated growth and community like your local festival, or provided interactive learning experiences like a science museum? We all experience policy, but could the process be doing more to increase public value? Can we move from unconsciously experiencing policy to consciously engaging with wider — and more accessible — policy discussions?
I’ve been thinking about new ways to take public policy development and decisions to our high streets, villages and rural communities. The aim? Enhancing the accessibility and depth at which citizens interact in setting the agenda, creatively prospect the future, develop new frameworks to make policy choices and indeed have the power for decisions that cultivate positive change in their communities.
There is a rise in interest around participatory methods for policy making both in forms of deliberative and co-design approaches, while others are calling for a democratisation of futures thinking to enhance our social imagination. Across these methods is a common thread that calls for more accessible and genuinely authentic approaches to participation to reduce the participation gap; by recognising the lived experience of people, the re-balancing and restructuring of power with transparent processes to shape the future.
Democracy extends beyond the vote, it is the way we democratise power to create society — by making visible the structures, processes, language, interactions and mindsets — that either liberates us or reinforces what holds us back. In this quest, we must call upon a portfolio of approaches in the hopes they find windows of opportunity in the current landscape. It’s here I wish to explore the notion of what I’m calling ‘experiential policy.’
So what can we learn about democratising power from a theme park, a local festival or a science museum? By examining three ways in which communities collectively seek to experience knowledge, contribute to social storytelling and share joy, I believe we can unlock design patterns (both at an emotional, spatial and physical level) that will allow people to interact with policy more holistically.
Using the examples above led me to consider the following elements of how we involve people in policymaking:
- Spaces: Do we provide a dedicated space in cities for people to visit and learn like a science museum, or are they co-created by the communities in different regions to celebrate regional growth like in a local festival? Does the experience lead you down one path to make your own memories within, or provide you with an array of vignettes that tempt and engage with your own unique interests?
- Content and interaction: Are they curated or loosely held for generative interaction, layering feedback over time to build up data and knowledge of the scores that visit? Do they allow for space and time for storytelling and the exchange of generational or indigineous knowledge, or do they provide wild imaginative experiences that ignite our senses and create cracks in our current reality to shed light on preferable futures? Does the pace suspend time, transport you to the future, celebrate the past or provide a rollercoaster of intense bursts of thrill?
- Emotional quality and value: All of these events seek to bring joy, knowledge, learning, storytelling and collective memory making into a safe, public space. They hold symbolic meaning in the fabric of our families, communities and nations. Can we tap into the hearts and minds of the public — and indeed will they let us in to explore together the very intangible qualities that shape the world we wish to live in?
Considering these elements, I would propose the following principles to apply in the pursuit of experiential policy. Policymaking should be…
- Legible: Policy should be translated into the open, with accessible communication across languages, signs and symbols that allow children, people of all backgrounds and abilities to learn and contribute.
- Sensory: Life is not about reports and numbers, but the sights, smells, touches and sounds of our daily existence. Too often our context is the product of seemingly invisible processes, decisions and power that influence our lives. Let us make this visible and transparent, to enhance our learning and participation through immersive experiences.
- Exploratory: Through storytelling, tangible experiments and futuring techniques that literally allow you to explore implications of decisions and new perspectives, igniting our imagination of possible policy intentions, services, macro and micro decisions and how they could shape our communities and the ecological world we live in.
- Safe: Spaces should be safe, supportive, inclusive and culturally aware. Let us explore our perceptions, conceptual construction and framing of social norms, values and issues so that we may each consider transition events and catalytic actions that might allow for shifts in decision making now.
- Shared: Policymaking events should be authentic in rebalancing power in ways that view citizens as experts in their own lives — seeking to address structural and symbolic power and clearly set out how their generative engagement can create change with real opportunities to collectively make decisions that affect our communities and nation.
- Led by the people: We must go where citizens go, where they wish to engage and how they’re used to engaging by creating enticing visual and spatial interpretations of our actions, thoughts and dreams.
If participation is a virtue of democracy, then we need to continue to find ways to bust open the doors of policymaking to strengthen the quality of our democracy. Using a multi-modal approach that recognises value in lived experience, policymaking needs to meet people on their terms, so that can unlock and synthesise collective knowledge and enable the change we wish to see.
Can we make better policy through more fun, engaging and accessible public experiences? I believe the public value it could bring is certainly worth trying.