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Article Article October 28th, 2016

Design thinking in policymaking: opportunities and challenges

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Design thinking involves empathetic engagement with the clients of government services

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Whenever people face an unexpected dilemma, it is easy to search for familiar solutions

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Design thinking's overall deployment in the public sector is varied and sporadic

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

What is “design thinking”?

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 sight of 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 Michael Mintrom and I we set out to remedy in our latest publication from the Australia and New Zealand School of Government. We define design thinking as a problem-solving approach characterised by curiosity and empathy, which seeks to interpret how its 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 community actions and their interactions with governments. Take problem definition, for example. Rather than having policymakers define and understand the problem from an agency - or government - perspective, design thinking offers a range of tools and investigative techniques that allow different aspects of the problem to emerge. Sometimes the problem that is defined is not the problem that needs to be solved.

What it looks like in practice

Our research 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) - headed up by Nicholas Gruen - was tasked by the South Australian government to assist families that are going through difficult times. Using design thinking strategies, such as Open-To-Learning Conversations, TACSI developed the Family by Family programme 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 programme puts families at the centre and offers something that professional services cannot: human connections and relationships. Family by Family links families that are seeking to make changes in their lives with families that have successfully overcome their own difficulties and are prepared to share their knowledge with others. The family-to-family linkages can last anywhere between three and six months and begin with both families setting goals for their involvement in the programme. The pairs of seeking and sharing families then organise themselves according to 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.

Some challenges remain

Social interventions of this sort are not easy to achieve. Whenever people face an unexpected dilemma, it is common practice to search for familiar solutions. This can create both conceptual and practical traps. It is potentially much more productive - although much harder - to look past the existing solutions to search for more radical and effective ones.

Challenging how things have “always been done” 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 tendencies and go beyond the obvious and the incremental.

Following its initial success in South Australia, with an unprecedented return on investment estimated at A$7 for every dollar spent, this programme has been extended to the neighbouring state of New South Wales. In addition, the peer-to-peer learning model is now being considered for use in resettling refugees and migrants; addressing domestic violence, social isolation, substance abuse, and disability; and tackling tough behavioural issues in the criminal justice space.

Where do we go from here?

At present, design thinking is being pursued across a range of government agencies, but its overall deployment in the public sector is varied and sporadic. This can lead to implementing design thinking for the wrong reasons or with unrealistic expectations.

We aim to demonstrate what works with design thinking and why. This does not mean that design thinking should override all existing forms of policymaking. In certain circumstances, traditional approaches to the design and implementation of public policy are necessary and preferable.

However, by cataloguing examples of best practice, we can offer lessons for those who are seeking to integrate design thinking into policy development. The next step is to understand and explore more fully the public impact that design thinking can have.



  • Christian Bason: Helping governments be different by design. Christian Bason is not one for the status quo. He takes time out from running the Danish Design Centre to tell us about a new way of creating policy

  • Welcome to the lab. Governments worldwide share an insatiable hunger for that flash of inspiration that can transform public services. To do so they increasingly rely on a lab, a bespoke group of individuals dedicated to driving innovation and impact. We speak to the director of Denmark's MindLab, Thomas Prehn, about this pioneering approach to policymaking

  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent. Alan Iny explains why thinking outside the box is just the start

  • Laws from the lab. Stephanie Wade is not one for the quiet life. As director of the Innovation Lab at the Office of Personnel and Management, she is driving design-led innovation across government - and having quite an impact…

  • Lab lessons. Andrea Siodmok and her team at the UK's Policy Lab are blazing a trail across the civil service. She tells us about designing new services around people's experiences

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