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Abstract

Design thinking has the potential to improve problem definition and mechanism design in policymaking processes. By promoting greater understanding of how citizens experience government services, design thinking can support public managers who desire to enhance public value. In Australia, as elsewhere, design thinking currently remains separated from mainstream policymaking efforts. This article clarifies the essence of design thinking and its applicability to policy development. Five design thinking strategies are discussed, all of which have lengthy histories as social science methodologies. They are (1) environmental scanning, (2) participant observation, (3) open-to-learning conversations, (4) mapping, and (5) sensemaking. Recent examples from Australia and New Zealand are used to illustrate how these strategies have been incorporated into policymaking efforts. The article concludes by considering how design thinking might be more broadly applied in policymaking, and the training and resourcing requirements that would entail.
Australian Journal of Public Administration, vol. 00, no. 0, pp. 1–12 doi:10.1111/1467-8500.12211
PRACTICE INSIGHTS
Design Thinking in Policymaking Processes:
Opportunities and Challenges
Michael Mintrom
Monash University
Joannah Luetjens
Australia and New Zealand School of Government
Design thinking has the potential to improve problem definition and mechanism design in
policymaking processes. By promoting greater understanding of how citizens experience
government services, design thinking can support public managers who desire to enhance
public value. In Australia, as elsewhere, design thinking currently remains separated from
mainstream policymaking efforts. This article clarifies the essence of design thinking and
its applicability to policy development. Five design thinking strategies are discussed, all of
which have lengthy histories as social science methodologies. They are (1) environmental
scanning, (2) participant observation, (3) open-to-learning conversations, (4) mapping, and
(5) sensemaking. Recent examples from Australia and New Zealand are used to illustrate
how these strategies have been incorporated into policymaking efforts. The article concludes
by considering how design thinking might be more broadly applied in policymaking, and the
training and resourcing requirements that would entail.
Key words: design thinking,policymaking,policy analysis,problem definition,stakeholder engage-
ment
Design thinking is now considered essential to
product development (Brown 2009; Brown and
Wyatt 2015; Martin 2009). In the tradition of
public policy theory and teaching, design has
long been seen as a component of policy devel-
opment (Howlett 2010; Lynn and Gould 1980;
Schneider and Ingram 1997). Policy implemen-
tation depends on the design of products and
services (Alford 2009; Lipsky 1980; Wilson
1989). Whilst policymaking constitutes a de-
sign activity, it is yet to be explicitly discussed
in design terms. We know too little about the
design activities that bring policies into be-
ing – of how policy designers identify prob-
lems and design criteria, about the methods
employed in the design process and whether
‘design thinking’ is translated into policy
action.
Design thinking should matter to govern-
ments because many gaps exist between the
services governments deliver and what citizens
want. In a recent review of government pro-
cesses, Peter Shergold (2015:17) states ‘good
policy should harness the views of those likely
to be impacted by the proposal’. Scope exists
for governments to better design their processes
to become more responsive to citizen expecta-
tions. This is crucial for enhancing public value
(Moore 1995).
The Australian Tax Office (ATO) was the
first Australian government agency to incor-
porate design thinking as currently under-
stood (Preston 2004). In the late 1990s, the
Ralph Review identified that ATO operations
could be improved by better joining of tax
policy development, legislative design, and
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
2 Mintrom and Luetjens xxxx 2016
administration. It recommended ‘an integrated
tax design process’. This prompted major re-
design of the ATO’s organisation. In the 2000s,
the ATO consciously placed taxpayers at the
centre of its operations and improved interac-
tion design (Body 2007). Rather than redesign-
ing tax forms or improving communication,
the ATO decided to begin redesigning the tax
system from its very foundations, using clar-
ity and ease of use as core design principles.
Attention was paid to how citizens experience
their personal pathways through the tax system.
Accordingly, various taxpayer-focused reforms
occurred. The ATO story exemplifies govern-
ment efforts to improve citizen engagement
(D’Ascenzo 2004). Around the globe, govern-
ments are establishing innovation labs where
methods and principles of design are being ex-
plored and applied to complex policy problems.
Policymaking practices evolve. Over time,
various research and analytical techniques are
incorporated into the frameworks that inform
policy analysis. The embrace of better evidence
offers a salient recent example, as does the fo-
cus on behavioural insights (see, e.g. Argyrous
2012; Shafir 2013). Design thinking could like-
wise inform policymaking more broadly. For
example, governments have long recognised
the value of public input in policy development
(Rosener 1975). The difference between what
has always been true of the best policymak-
ing processes and design thinking is a height-
ened emphasis on the user perspective. Design
thinking argues for greater empathy for the
service user.
The Nature and Appeal of Design Thinking
The origins of design thinking lie in Simon’s
(1969) The Sciences of the Artificial. Simon
observed that ‘the intellectual activity that pro-
duces material artefacts is no different funda-
mentally from the one that prescribes remedies
for a sick patient . . . or a social welfare policy
for a state’ (p. 55–56). The ability to iterate,
test, and incrementally improve designs is cen-
tral to Simon’s model and is the ‘core of all
professional training; it is the principal mark
that distinguishes the professions from the
sciences’. Simon subsequently extended his de-
sign focus to social planning. For him, such
planning ideally aimed to help decision makers
‘evaluate alternatives better’ and ‘experience
the world in more and richer ways’ (1996:130).
Design thinking emphasises the importance
of problem definition. The inclusion of cit-
izen or ‘end-user’ perspectives in problem
definition is said to enable a richer under-
standing of the problem and direct attention
to more nuanced solutions (Chambers 2003;
Fung 2006). Similarly, design thinking en-
courages end users, policy designers, central
departments, and line agencies to work in a col-
laborative and iterative manner. The most im-
portant skill for a design thinker is to ‘imagine
the world from multiple perspectives – those of
colleagues, clients, end-users, and customers
(current and prospective)’ (Brown 2008:87).
This is where greater empathy for different per-
spectives emerges. Design thinking does not
start with a presumption of a known answer,
or even a well-defined problem. Through it-
erative ethnographic methods, such as those
mentioned in the specific strategies section, de-
sign thinking holds the promise of bridging the
common gap in public administration between
the goals of policymaking and the experiences
of citizens as they interact with government
services.
To date, no single definition has emerged
of what constitutes design thinking. Clarifi-
cation is in order. Design thinkers exhibit cu-
riosity and empathy in their efforts to interpret
how target populations engage with their world.
They deploy various investigative techniques
that have the potential to illuminate prob-
lems in new ways and indicate effective client-
focused solutions. The benefits derived from
design thinking depend on how it is understood
and put into practice in each setting. Minimal
value will be realised if one or two techniques
are ‘cherry-picked’ and inserted into main-
stream policy processes. We concur with Geoff
Mulgan’s (2014) observation that design think-
ing is ‘a synthesis of methods drawn from
many fields . . . that together helpfully mitigate
the traditional limitations of public policymak-
ing’ (p. 4). Those traditional limitations emerge
from a lack of appreciation for how citizens
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
Design Thinking in Policymaking Processes 3
and service clients make choices in specific
contexts.
Design thinking raises interesting questions
regarding legitimacy. Taken at face value,
its methods promote input-oriented legitimacy
and democratic participation. However, there
is a question regarding the representativeness
of the input as it is not yet clear who actu-
ally participates in the design thinking pro-
cess. Although some such as Fung (2006) and
Habermas (1984) articulate the value of citi-
zen participation, a legitimate outcome is con-
tingent on the knowledge and willingness of
an active citizenry. If design thinking is to be-
come part of the policymaker’s toolkit, serious
consideration will need to be given to issues
of trust, efficiency, democratic representative-
ness, and effectiveness.
Figure 1 sets out the stages in design think-
ing and the key design thinking strategies dis-
cussed in this article. Design thinking can as-
sist in problem definition, mechanism design,
and program implementation. Its broader adop-
tion could transform several traditional stages
of policymaking.
Applying Design Thinking in Policymaking
Traditionally, policymaking has been charac-
terised as an intendedly rational process in-
volving a linear path from problem definition
to the analysis of options and development of
policy solutions. Increasingly, this view is be-
ing contested due to the inherent complexi-
ties facing the public sector. In complex sys-
tems, well-intended interventions often have
unintended consequences (Shergold 2015). It
is in this space that design thinking emerges as
an approach to navigating and making sense
of complexity. It may also present a means
by which the imagination and creativity that
Ministers say is missing in the contemporary
public service could be engendered (Rhodes
and Tiernan 2014).
Often, policymaking incorporates consulta-
tion with stakeholders late in the process, after
problem definition has occurred, options have
been analysed, and broadly acceptable ways for-
ward have been explored. Consulting at this
later stage reduces the risk of policy work be-
ing subjected to major challenge and being sent
back to the drawing board. At the same time,
this raises the risk of consultation being con-
strued as a formality, intended to limit the abil-
ity of stakeholders to seriously inform mecha-
nism design.
Design thinking highlights the value of early
engagement with stakeholders. Various aca-
demics and public commentators have high-
lighted the use of design thinking as a way
to inform problem definition (Buchanan 1992;
Dorst and Cross 2001; Liedtka et al. 2013;
Rowe 1998). This could challenge some cur-
rent mainstream policymaking styles, although
conflict is not inevitable. The managerial brief
is to manage policy development and policy
consultation so that everyone involved under-
stands why they are being consulted and how
consultation is being sequenced.
Design thinking calls for specific skills that
are not always present in public sector envi-
ronments. This barrier to its greater use could
be addressed through training. The requisite
skills are well understood and their transfer has
been codified in diverse disciplines, including
anthropology, psychology, sociology, commu-
nication, and design and architecture. It may
not be necessary – or desirable – for every-
one to have these skills. However the scal-
ing up of design work in the public service
would undoubtedly contribute to the diversity
of skills required to more adequately acquire
and analyse policy-relevant information. This
has been observed as a significant current gap
(Shergold 2015).
Design thinking also encourages the tran-
scendence of organisational and procedural si-
los, established hierarchies, or bureaucratic cat-
egories. Again, such activity might initially
take those involved in policymaking out of
their comfort zone, but this need not present
a major barrier to greater adoption. Many
public service delivery projects applying de-
sign thinking have been carried out at the lo-
cal level, and have therefore involved efforts
to transcend jurisdictional boundaries among
governments.
Design thinking cannot be simply slotted
into existing modes of policy development. But
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
4 Mintrom and Luetjens xxxx 2016
Figure 1. Design thinking and policymaking
Design thinkers empathecally observe target groups to define problems and canvas possible
soluons. Prototype development and tesng are done iteravely in collaboraon with the target
group to ensure the devised soluon is fit for purpose.
1. Empathecally observe target group
2. Explore the problem
3. Canvas possible soluons
4. Develop a prototype soluon
5. Test the prototype with the target group
Design thinking strategies can be combined to strengthen the targeng, development, and
implementaon of public policies.
Design thinking can assist in problem definion, mechanism design, and program implementaon. Its
broader adopon could transform several tradional stages of policymaking.
Problem
Definion
Agenda
Seng
Policy
Adopon
Program
Implementaon
Program
Evaluaon
C. POLICYMAKING PROCESSES
A. PHASES IN DESIGN THINKING
B. KEY DESIGN THINKING STRATEGIES
Environmental
Scanning
Open-to-Learning
Conversaons
Parcipant
Observaon
Mapping
Sensemaking
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
Design Thinking in Policymaking Processes 5
incorporation can occur, and has occurred. We
next offer some examples.
Specific Design Strategies and Their
Potential Uses in Policymaking
The claim for greater application of design
thinking in policymaking is that it will increase
the likelihood that public policies will have in-
tended effects. Focusing on the lived experi-
ences of citizens and service users is expected
to promote better policymaking. In the best
cases, such policies should lead to implemen-
tation of programs that enhance public value
and represent good return on the investment of
public funds.
Suppose a government had the goal of im-
proving delivery of support and advisory ser-
vices to unemployed youth. A design project
intended to inform such an effort would start
by seeking to identify regularities across indi-
vidual behaviour that suggest the need for more
worthy forms of mechanism design and service
delivery than currently exist. Such a project
might work through questions of this sort:
rWhere are the highest areas of youth un-
employment at present?
rWhat factors appear to engender youth un-
employment?
rWhere is youth unemployment likely to
emerge as a problem in the coming years?
rHow are job-seeking strategies of the
long-term unemployed different from
those of the short-term unemployed?
rUnder what circumstances does youth un-
employment lead to other problems, such
as teen pregnancy, substance dependency,
or criminal activity?
rWhat do unemployed youth want from
service providers?
rWhat are some success stories of inter-
ventions that have assisted youth to gain
stable, long-term employment?
This set of questions specific to youth unem-
ployment could be readily adapted to prompt
design thinking across a broad range of areas
where some form of government support is con-
sidered necessary to improve social outcomes.
The application of design thinking – tapping
the knowledge of targeted individuals, creat-
ing opportunities for significant public engage-
ment of diverse perspectives, and prototyping
interventions – would require reinvention of
key aspects of policymaking. Here we provide
a non-exhaustive but illustrative list of spe-
cific design strategies and their potential use
in policymaking. These are (1) environmen-
tal scanning, (2) participant observation, (3)
open-to-learning conversations, (4) mapping,
and (5) sensemaking. Our examples suggest de-
sign thinking can indeed be incorporated into
policymaking processes, to good effect.
Environmental Scanning
This strategy explores present behaviours of in-
dividuals and groups in given localities and the
outcomes resulting from those behaviours. It
also seeks to identify trends that may influence
future outcomes (Fahey and King 1977). It re-
quires taking stock of a particular situation and
scanning for new inputs, materials, influences,
and technologies applied in other fields that
may be relevant (Etzioni 1986). Used appropri-
ately, it creates an evidence-based method of
gathering, synthesising, and interpreting infor-
mation that can shift the attention of an organ-
isation toward new opportunity areas, threats,
and potential blind spots. Environmental scan-
ning is intended to fill knowledge gaps and
develop holistic understandings of systems. It
must include user perspectives. This opens the
possibility for the strategy to raise the empa-
thy of policy developers towards end users of
government services.
Environmental scanning casts a wide net, ex-
ploring things in different ways, and absorb-
ing knowledge from areas not necessarily con-
sidered in traditional policymaking processes.
Questioning the data and evidence helps policy
developers revisit longstanding assumptions,
and review current policy settings. Information
acquired in a scan can be used to create an
initial analysis and generate hypotheses about
the road ahead. The strategy can be used when
considering a new policy area, or improving a
policy that is currently in place.
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
6 Mintrom and Luetjens xxxx 2016
The Australian Centre for Social Innovation
(TACSI) was established in Adelaide, South
Australia in 2009. It was tasked with develop-
ing new ideas on assisting families in difficult
situations and preventing them from coming
into contact with crisis services. In 2013, the
Victorian Department of Health (VicHealth)
partnered with TACSI to explore alternative
approaches to grant funding to improve fruit
and vegetable supply and access in Victoria.
VicHealth understood that for this initiative
to gain traction, it would have to find a way
to foster innovation amongst NGOs and busi-
nesses already providing services to the depart-
ment. Through the partnership with TACSI,
VicHealth was able to reach and speak with
a whole new range of potential suppliers across
the nutrition sector that agreed to support
their approach. Tapping TACSI’s ethnographic
methods and approaches, VicHealth received
advice from people including representatives of
the fruit and vegetable industries, researchers,
and social entrepreneurs. Evidence and data
clarified direct links between poor food choices
among citizens and the burden of preventable
ill health. The issue, however, was that mes-
sages about healthy food choices were not get-
ting through to service users. By partnering
with TACSI, VicHealth was able to test and
challenge some of its most basic assumptions
regarding access to healthy food in the commu-
nity and identify strategies to overcome these.
Participant Observation
Observation refers to the ability to notice sig-
nificant and seemingly insignificant details to
gather information. In developing a frame-
work for understanding information processing
in problem solving tasks, Newell and Simon
(1972) strongly emphasised the importance of
task effects on decision behaviour. They con-
tended that a theory of problem solving can-
not predict behaviour unless it encompasses
both an analysis of the task and the limits of
rational adaptation to task requirements. Al-
though environmental scanning facilitates the
broad exploration of an issue, observation re-
quires engaging with people encountering spe-
cific problems. It can access tacit, otherwise
difficult to capture knowledge from subjects
(Polanyi 1966).
Design thinking applies observation to un-
derstand people and their behaviour in the con-
text of their lives. This can involve observ-
ing someone complete a task or engage with a
service. The observer accompanies the subject
through the steps, and may ask the subject to
explain what they are doing at each step. Some
of the most powerful realisations come from
noticing discrepancies between what someone
says they are doing and what they are actu-
ally doing. Others come from a workaround
someone has created but would never think to
mention in an interview situation as the process
has become normalised. Identifying and under-
standing user needs can serve as a quick route
to efficiency. By designing a policy around the
people who will ultimately be service users,
policy developers can eliminate extraneous el-
ements. Observation is particularly useful for
understanding the effect that a policy has on
marginalised people. In this context – as in
many others – empathy is critical to effective
observation (Wagenaar 2014).
In 2011, the former Australian Department
of Education, Employment and Workplace Re-
lations launched ‘Home to Work’ (H2W), a
1-year place-based pilot program designed to
integrate support and employment services for
the most disadvantaged jobseekers in Canberra.
Non-governmental project brokers engaged in
intensive community consultation to identify
common individual and group needs. The par-
ticipants were drawn from marginalised groups
that had experienced consistent difficulties in
securing long-term employment. Observation
enabled the project brokers to learn about the
participant’s activities and needs, rather than
make assumptions. The methodology of H2W
informed development of a tailored menu of
assistance options, including monthly coun-
selling, initial employment assistance, mentor-
ing programs, and social networking and inclu-
sion activities. On conclusion of the pilot, 64%
of H2W participants were placed in full-time
employment, approximately twice the number
normally achieved through traditional methods
of service design (Evans 2012). Participants
were also significantly more satisfied with their
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
Design Thinking in Policymaking Processes 7
engagements with government than had been
the case in the past.
Open-to-Learning Conversations
The tendency of most service-producing organ-
isations is to limit choices for consumers and
make incremental adjustments. Problems are
addressed using standard operating procedures
that attempt to maintain predefined notions of
order. This is true in all sectors of society, in-
cluding the public sector. Argyris (1982, 1991)
explores this phenomenon in the context of
single- and double-loop learning. Single-loop
learning suggests that when something goes
wrong, people seek alternate strategies that will
address and work within present constrained
choices. In double-loop learning, the alternate
response is to question the existing choice set.
Double-loop learning, or divergent thinking, is
the route to innovation.
To achieve divergent thinking, it is im-
portant to have a diverse group of peo-
ple involved in the process. Open-to-learning
conversations encourage divergent thinking
(Martin 2009; Neumeier 2009). Such conversa-
tions are less about analysing existing options
and more about the creation of new options and
questioning the fundamental basis of existing
structures. Although this process is non-linear,
initial research and exploration is required to
provide a structure that enables the facilitator
to dig deeper and capture findings from the
group. The key to facilitating conversations is
to attempt to define and redef ine the problem
statement, based on the feedback and insights
drawn from the group. This allows for the chal-
lenging of assumptions and preconceived ideas.
One way to facilitate open-to-learning con-
versations is to ask: ‘How might we...?
‘How’ assumes that solutions exist and pro-
vides the creative confidence needed to iden-
tify and solve for unmet needs. ‘Might’ says
that we can put ideas out that may or may not
work – either way, there is a learning oppor-
tunity. ‘We’ signals collaboration and building
on each other’s ideas to find creative solutions
together (Martin 2009).
Earlier, we noted the work of the Australian
Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI). In 2009,
TACSI was tasked by the South Australian
Government with developing an approach to as-
sist families in difficulty and prevent them from
coming into contact with crisis services, such
as child protection interventions. The result,
the Family by Family program, emerged from
a co-design process with hundreds of families,
framed by the question: ‘How can a new ser-
vice enable more families to thrive and fewer to
come into contact with crisis services?’ (TACSI
2012). Family by Family is a peer-to-peer learn-
ing model that pairs families in need with fam-
ilies who have overcome hardship. The model
puts families at the centre and offers some-
thing that professional services cannot: human
connections and relationships. Following initial
success in Adelaide, with an unprecedented re-
turn on investment estimated as $7 for every
dollar spent, this program has been extended
to New South Wales (TACSI 2014). The peer-
to-peer learning model is now being consid-
ered with respect to refugees and migrant re-
settlement, domestic violence, social isolation
and exclusion, substance use, disability, and
dealing with behavioural issues.
Mapping
Mapping can be used to understand how differ-
ent ideas relate to one another. It has long been
used in policymaking to explore the links be-
tween mechanism design and implementation
(Elmore 1979). A concept map can be used
to develop a conceptual framework to guide
evaluation or planning (Trochim 1989). Such
a framework can organise some of what has
been learned during previous phases of design
processes. Mapping allows the designer to vi-
sualise how things connect, and spot emerging
patterns. This can be done by putting one idea,
or user, at the centre and then mapping how the
other ideas and insights play off it.
Mapping can be used to systematically vi-
sualise human experiences and think about
steps or ‘touchpoints’ of a process. Often in
traditional policymaking, problem statements
are considered in isolation from relevant con-
textualisation. Journey mapping communicates
the user experience from beginning to end
and offers broader, sophisticated and holistic
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
8 Mintrom and Luetjens xxxx 2016
knowledge of user experiences. It can reveal
problems and help suggest alternate pathways
forward. This can be a very powerful antidote to
complacency and a good way to challenge con-
ventional thinking. There are many ways this
can be done. For example, if a hospital wanted
to improve patient through put, it would be use-
ful to know the steps involved between when the
patient leaves their house, enters the hospital,
speaks with the triage nurse, speaks with addi-
tional people, or hospital staff. Visually map-
ping experiences such as these can help identify
areas where services or processes can be elimi-
nated, streamlined, enhanced, or changed. This
does not need to be an in-depth, detailed rep-
resentation, but rather a rough sketch of how a
process unfolds.
This aspect of design thinking has proved in-
tegral to the NSW Health’s Clinical Services
Redesign Program (CSRP). The CSRP sought
to analyse and identify problems in the health
system from the perspective of the patient’s
journey, that is, the end-to-end sequence of all
the steps required to provide clinical care for
a patient. Following a successful pilot, this ap-
proach received funding from the NSW Gov-
ernment to roll out a 3-year, statewide program.
At its peak, the CSRP included 75 separate
redesign projects in 60 hospitals (Ben-Tovim
et al. 2008). The process began by focusing the
scope of the overall project and the make-up
of the redesign team. All key individuals and
groups were involved in the mapping process.
It was understood that mapping must engage
staff, management, patients, and other forms of
external care that patients may receive. The ini-
tial mapping session recorded the process, not
what people thought it was. Recording the pa-
tient journey in this way demonstrated the com-
plexity of the situation and subsequently acted
as a catalyst to promote systems change. The
redesign of the planned patient journey in NSW
promoted the expansion of the extended ‘day-
only’ model of care, reformed the waiting times
policy, standardised patient pre-admission and
preparation, and the targeted operating theatre
use. The results of the CSRP have been impres-
sive, including a 97% reduction in the number
of patients whose surgery was overdue, and
a 99% reduction in the number of patients
waiting more than a year for surgery
(MacLellan et al. 2008). These are significant
returns on investment. Mapping the service-
user journey could be broadly applied across
many areas of government activity.
Sensemaking
Weick (1995) defined sensemaking as an on-
going social retrospective process grounded
in identity construction, driven by plausibility
rather than accuracy. It is an action-oriented
process that people automatically go through
to integrate experiences into their understand-
ing of the world around them. The sensemaking
perspective suggests that in organisational set-
tings much latitude exists in the interpretation
of situations and events. Sensemaking requires
connections to be forged between seemingly
unrelated issues through a process of selec-
tive pruning and visual organisation. Dialogue
is critical to sensemaking. Once data and in-
sights have been externalised, say in the form
of post-it notes on the wall, designers can begin
the more intellectual task of identifying explicit
and implicit relationships, physically drawing
out these content affinities through the pro-
cess of organisation. The designer begins to
move content around, physically, placing items
that are related next to each other. All of the
content is related in some way, but the impor-
tant connections are frequently those that are
multifaceted and complex.
Once the groupings begin to emerge, they
can be labelled and understood. One of the most
basic principles of making sense out of data is
to externalise the entire meaning-creation pro-
cess. Content can then be freely moved and
manipulated, and the entire set of data can be
seen at one time. Implicit and hidden meanings
can be revealed by relating otherwise discrete
chunks of data to one another, and positioning
these chunks in the context of human behaviour.
Sensemaking requires perception, judgement,
and flexibility.
The Auckland City Mission launched The
Family 100 Project in an attempt to under-
stand the complexity of the repeating cycle
of poverty. Over a 12-month period, the team
worked with 100 families who were long-term
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
Design Thinking in Policymaking Processes 9
users of the Mission’s foodbank. Team mem-
bers sought to gain a deeper understanding of
the lived experiences of families in poverty.
One key focus of the Project was to map par-
ticipants’ interactions with a range of agencies
to reveal how people navigate a complex ser-
vice landscape to get their needs met (Hod-
getts et al. 2013a). The Project unleashed a
range of insights into justice, debt, health, ed-
ucation, employment, housing, food and ser-
vices, and how these areas relate to one an-
other. The Project also gained traction within
the judiciary, resulting in a workshop between
the project authors and judges (Hodgetts et al.
2013b). With the family as the focus point,
the team were able to use these interactions
to make sense of the poverty cycle and to
recognise areas that could be strengthened to
assist them in breaking the cycle. As insights
and connections merge, it is critical that these
ideas be captured and developed into small-
scale prototypes that can be tested early. This
iterative process enables stronger solutions to
form as ideas can be refined, tested, trialled, and
refined again.
Key Considerations
As an evolving concept, design thinking is not
without its critics. As with most forms of social
innovation, it is a concept that relies on practice
to give it meaning. This aligns with Buchanan
(1992) who states that ‘design has no special
subject matter of its own, apart from what a
designer conceives it to be’ (p. 16). It is ‘poten-
tially universal in scope’. Concrete descriptions
of the concept are of limited value, because the
tools, practices, and cognitive processes are not
used in a vacuum. As such, the value of the ap-
proach is difficult to measure given that the
benefits of using it depend on how the con-
cept is understood and put into practice in each
setting.
There are few empirical studies on actual use
of design thinking, either in the private and
public sphere. This limited understanding can
lead to implementing design thinking for the
wrong reasons, or with unrealistic expectations.
Similarly, evaluation of implementation efforts
from a short-term perspective can result in their
being considered a failure as many intended
effects are realised in the long term. Design
thinking requires time, space, and authorisa-
tion to operate. As such, questions have been
raised regarding its applicability to the public
sector. But such questions are misguided be-
cause they imply that the public service is not
open to change. In Australia, and particularly
since the Coombs Royal Commission in 1976,
the public service has undergone significant
change. In the process, it has adopted many
new frameworks, models, and practices based
on international trends and experiences. Design
thinking, in its purest form, does not fit with
mainstream policymaking processes. However,
aspects of design thinking are already occur-
ring within the public sector context – and quite
successfully.
The effectiveness of design thinking will de-
pend on the users’ understanding and intent. It
is a time-consuming process and should not be
undertaken for gains in efficiency. In the case
of NSW’s Clinical Redesign program, the key
performance indicators were framed in terms
of access to services and efficiency, rather than
a balance between performance, quality, and
safety (Eagar et al. 2008). Although improve-
ments were achieved within certain aspects of
the system, they were not sustained. For change
to occur, design thinking requires leadership
and commitment. There is a danger that agen-
cies seeking to develop and adopt more citizen-
centred approaches to policymaking will use
design thinking simply as a short-term means
to an end. Although design thinking does sit
within the broader gamut of citizen-centred ap-
proaches, it is more about empowering passive
citizens and understanding their experiences of
government policy and services.
Where Next with Design Thinking
and Policymaking?
Design thinking holds the promise of assist-
ing policymakers to create interventions and
services that improve the user experience and
enhance public value. It is not a panacea. Nor
does it seek to displace or override existing
C2016 Institute of Public Administration Australia
10 Mintrom and Luetjens xxxx 2016
forms of policymaking. The success of the ap-
proach is contingent on the diversity of skills
and abilities sought within a specific project. It
requires curiosity and openness. There are cer-
tain instances where traditional approaches to
the design and implementation of public policy
are necessary and preferable (see, e.g. Rhodes
2015; Tiernan 2015). However, design thinking
offers an alternative view of how government
might interact with and include citizens in its
decision-making processes.
At present, design thinking in the public
sector is varied and scattered. It is at risk
of not being taken seriously. The global rise
of design, innovation, and change labs repre-
sent one response. There is no doubt, however,
that labs represent a paradox: They are cre-
ated as part of a system but are there to chal-
lenge it. For instance, Lykketoft (2014) points
out that creating an innovation lab within an
existing organisation implies that the organ-
isation as a whole is not yet capable of the
wanted transformation. In that sense, the role
of labs is to create motivation and commit-
ment to design thinking for policymaking. This
could also be achieved by partnering with exist-
ing co-design organisations or boundary span-
ning organisations, committed to ensuring best
practice in policymaking. A key question re-
mains: How design processes and capabilities
might be more integrated into policymaking
processes.
Given its potential benefits, we see value in
cataloguing best practice in the integration of
design thinking into policymaking processes.
We have offered a step in that direction. Efforts
are needed to determine the conditions under
which design thinking seriously improves pol-
icymaking. We need to understand when early
engagement with end users is most likely to en-
hance policy design, program development, im-
plementation, and social outcomes. To fully in-
stitutionalise design thinking in policymaking
processes, among other things, careful consid-
eration should be paid to the skills this would re-
quire of policy analysts, and how cross-agency
and cross-jurisdictional relations could be more
effectively managed to support policy develop-
ment.
Acknowledgements
We wish to thank Jim Scully, Nina Terrey, Sally
Washington, and Alex Roberts for their inspiration
and insights as we studied design thinking and its
applications in policy development. They were very
generous with their time. We are also grateful to
Anne Tiernan and the anonymous referees for their
encouragement and advice. Of course, we accept full
responsibility for any limitations or errors in the final
manuscript.
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