Critiquing design in government decision-making

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Thanks to @MalmbergL for the snap!

This blog is an adaptation of a presentation delivered at ServDes 2016 at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, reporting on early findings from my PhD research. The full paper is available as part of the conference proceedings. Part I of this blog sets out some of the questions and concerns framing my research. Part II reports on findings from a pilot study where I am attempting to start to tackle these questions.

Design is being used more and more – and more strategically – within government. The design community (the bits that are aware of it at least) tend to regard this as something of a win. But with all the optimism I think we’re missing some criticality. If we assume that design turning its attention to social and public challenges is on the whole a good thing, the only sensible questions to ask are ‘how can we do it better?’ and ‘how can we do it more?’ If for a second we suspend any normative judgment about design – it allows us to ask a different set of questions. For my part, I’m aware that, although current ways of ‘doing’ government are admittedly far from perfect, policy and politics is difficult, messy, ambiguous stuff – and this is new territory to design. So if we are going to be actors in this world – how do we do this in a way that is not wide-eyed and naïve? But sensitive to the histories, knowledge and practices of democracy and politics.

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Quote from a senior civil servant in the Cabinet Office, interviewed in May 2015

Part I: asking questions of ourselves

First, how can we make sense of what we’re doing in democratic and political terms?

We tend to think of human-centred design as inherently democratising, in theory, but that comes from applying it in a particular (usually highly localised) context. There are far more mainstream ideas about how to enact democracy on a larger scale. However imperfect in reality, there is an agreed theory of democracy in which power and accountability flow in certain ways. By inserting design into the relationship between the machinery of government and the public, what are we changing about those flows of power?

  • Are we bypassing politics somehow – shouldn’t we be involving politicians in the conversation? Do we risk making promises to citizens that can’t be kept, if we don’t?
  • To what extent are ‘users’ empowered, or merely used? Are we mobilising user insight to deliver something that will benefit them, or to understand where we can take services away without causing too much of a fuss?
  • What’s more democratic anyway – holding an election, or doing some really thorough ethnographic studies?

And what happens when there are finite resources, and disagreement about their allocation is inevitable? Can we design our way out of everything, or is there a still an important role for opposition and conflict – for agonism?

Slide3Second, following on the heels of ‘behavioural insights’, ‘big data’ and other recent additions to the public administration toolbox, design techniques are opening up new strategies and options to government – beyond regulation and heavy-handed intervention – furthering the capabilities of a certain kind of ‘soft paternalism’. Knowing this, is it possible to work within the system and maintain some criticality?

  • Whose ends is design being exploited for?
  • What are we bringing into the reach of government? Why do we think they might be interested in making use of design?
  • Who is defining the target group as a group – what kind of politics are embedded in the concept of – for example – ‘troubled families’?
  • How are we conceptualising the public? As customers? Citizens? Users? Patients? People? And what difference does that make to the methods we deploy?
  • How far are we thinking about the ethical implications of our ideas, alongside their efficacy?

Difficult questions, but ones I think any practitioner (design or otherwise) in this space should hold in mind.

Part II: making sense of practices

Over the last year I’ve tried to start to understand what’s happening when design intervenes in the acts of policymaking, by interviewing lots of civil servants about their interactions with Policy Lab and design methods. (Policy Lab is a team in the heart of government, in the Cabinet Office, that is actively trying to innovate policymaking practices by working with departmental teams and introducing new practice from different fields, a great deal from design). Our conversations have ranged over multiple projects, however the majority were quite ‘social’, in as much as they were actively trying to change people’s conduct in different ways – so very rich territory for thinking about some of these questions.

Slide6What came out of those interviews was – as well as some opinions about design – a rich picture of current institutional norms, culture and practices.

A practice lens is useful here, partly because there aren’t clear distinctions between designers and non-designers in this kind of work. But also because I think in order to make a contribution we first have to understand – to see what’s precious in the accumulated wisdom about how to manage politics in reality, and what’s useful about designerly ways of proposing change.

The civil service in Westminster has some long-established ways of doing things, and these don’t come from nowhere. Whilst some of them may feel a bit archaic, many of them embody the very issues of accountability, flows of power, democracy, ethical action, etc that I have set out above. They come from a particular environment and set of conditions, which in turn derives from centuries of working how to peaceably run the country.

The dynamic and power balance between the machinery of government (the civil service) and the people behind the wheel (the political party in office) is not straightforward. Civil servants ‘serve’ two masters – their political bosses, and the public. There are all sorts of ways that the machinery of government can speed up or slow down change. This is often seen by politicians as simply being obstructive – but from the perspective of citizens it’s about ensuring some sense of continuity and stability across successive administrations.

There is a tendency to characterise policy as being about rationality and politics as about ideology – but in reality it’s all politics. It’s all about negotiation. And there are innumerable policymaking practices that embody the need to manage relationships when working between ministers/ Parliament and the civil service – and some people become very good at this. Rather than anything so clear as a set of rules, it’s more like a carefully choreographed scene constantly being played out – and those who are artful can make small innovations within the form. It’s this artform that design practices are engaging with.

Slide7So what happens when we introduce design practices? My interviews gave me some insight into where the points of friction are – which also highlights I think where some of the opportunities are.

The first big clash is around the different epistemologies that underpin design, and policy. What constitutes knowledge, and evidence? How do we know we know something? And what constitutes knowing enough to proceed with a course of action? For policymakers, traditionally, knowledge is more of an absolute thing and is generated through, for example,

  • reviewing certain kinds of written evidence, mainly about what has happened in the past
  • educated people thinking really hard
  • asking an ‘expert’
  • quantitative data

This all means that often analysts and advisors in government know a lot about what is happening, but they know less about why – and they aren’t well-served to have new ideas about different kinds of solution. Design, by contrast, assumes that knowledge is always provisional, contextual and situated , and you can best know things through

  • doing, or testing,
  • immersing yourself in an environment,
  • or asking a real person about their experience of something.

So consulting the citizen, for example, whilst an obvious strategy for designers is not at all obvious as a valid way of generating knowledge – to policymakers.

There’s a second distinction – about what knowledge is for, and what makes it useful. Designers are normally interested in knowledge and insight that helps us move forward to doing something that works. For policymakers, the usefulness of knowledge is framed by two things:

  • a constant awareness of what will be acceptable and interesting to politicians
  • the ‘robustness’ of the evidence in question

So design ethnography, for instance, is both intriguing and problematic for policymakers – they like the insights, but not all of them might play well politically, and it’s not robust enough to do anything with. The insights from 6 ethnographic interviews isn’t enough to move ahead with a policy that will affect thousands of people.

So: do we try and blend design and policy practices to generate all these different kinds of knowledge to keep everyone happy? Or do we try and shift policymaking culture to work with other ways of knowing (which might be more suited to acting in complex situations)? And this is a question for all of us because it really comes back to the political requirement to demonstrate certainty about a particular course of action.

95_BaileyThe second point of friction is about performance and personality.

In order for senior civil servants to perform their key task of handling situations, and manoeuvring in order to strategically position the civil service in relation to politicians, there are certain accepted ways of appearing to be competent. Design seems to be challenging to many of these, primarily because of the need in design to admit that you don’t know, and perhaps dwell in ambiguity for a while. It’s very difficult for policymakers to admit to politicians, and for politicians to admit to the public, that they don’t know the answer. Which limits the amount of reflection and exploration it’s possible to do. Quashing ambiguity and providing certainty is usually privileged over taking time to find an appropriate solution to a problem.

And this trickles down into the ways people behave and conduct themselves – even the ways they have conversations. I think this is changing in other bits of government – but the policymaking culture in Whitehall is hierarchical, and competitive, and privileges people who are clever in certain ways. You might say it’s a culture dominated by the ideal of ‘rational man’. More feminine, collaborative, self-effacing modes – which is often what we see in social design – are less likely lead to promotion.

Collaborative design practices require a different way of performing and working as a group. So in fact there are benefits in design creating a space where policymakers are allowed to perform their roles in a different way. But getting the license to do this in the first place is hard.

And in relation to space, the third point is about material and aesthetic culture.

All organisations have an aesthetic, a set of ways the institution manifests itself to the senses. For the departments of government, and policymakers, the dominant aesthetic is closely tied to words and text, such as:

  • the circulation of pieces of paper with words written on them,
  • the act of sitting around in meetings with words on paper on the table,
  • the writing of ministerial submissions in a predefined format.

This practice is important again from an accountability perspective – there is literally a paper trail. And words are clearly felt to be reassuring evidence that proper analytical work has been done.

But aesthetic disruption has many advantages, not least in changing the way people relate to each other by changing the format of interactions, and the objects they interact in relation to. Visual ways of working and sharing ideas allow people to think about and understand things in a different way, and prompt a different set of thoughts. It gets people out of typical patterns of thinking.

However there is a question about how to create an audit trail of the decision making that happens in – for example – a collaborative workshop where people are talking their ideas through in relation to a model they’ve made out of cardboard and lego men. And of course eventually those ideas have to find their way into written form.

Slide8Ultimately it’s all underpinned by…

Unsurprisingly, a pervasive influence on practices is the framing of everything by the politics of the moment and place – political culture, priorities and narratives.

For example, in England at present all decisions are taken in the shadow of a very dominant austerity narrative – the bottom line is saving money and reducing the burden on the state in some way. Scottish politics has a markedly different tone – driven by the agenda around political and democratic renewal, and differentiating from England (crystallised in the ‘Scottish approach to government’). This puts a different spin on the ways that design practices are being mobilised.

And the structure of the political institution in question puts limits around what is possible: in a hierarchical organisation it’s difficult to get everyone involved in a collaborative design process. I can clearly see a far more democratic kind of platform where policy negotiations happen publicly through collaborative design methods and include politicians. But that would require a very different kind of institution.

Finally, whatever the political zeitgeist, for me it seems to be a moral imperative for anyone working in this context – and especially designers who might be introducing into government new ways of meddling in people’s lives – to think broadly and critically about the implications of policy-setting – to zoom out of the practices and practicalities and wonder a bit about the bigger picture.

Slide9So to conclude

What I’ve learned so far from my pilot study is that stewarding design practices through a political environment means developing a rich understanding of institutional culture – and maybe we should be aiming for a blended set of practices. And in relation to those bigger questions – here are some thoughts to end with:

  • Political culture, mood and narratives unavoidably set the parameters for the ethos of design practice
  • Bringing the machinery of government and the lives of people into closer contact should prompt critical reflection: is it purely instrumental, or empowering of people?
  • The language and practices of service, and design, derive from the market – perhaps we need a new concept of service, and design, in the context of democracy
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1 Comment

Filed under creativity, Design, Politics

One response to “Critiquing design in government decision-making

  1. Pingback: EU Policy Lab | Innovating Policy: Transdisciplinary Practice and the Politics of Co-Construction in Policy Labs

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