Dr Sharon Andrews discusses how policymakers are looking to design to innovate policy development and adequately address social issues.
Governments across Australia are advocating for innovation in policy development and service design. Faced with significant challenges in family violence, child protection, homelessness and entrenched poverty (to name a few), the development of policy has shifted away from the once popular cautious incrementalism of the tinkering around the edges.
Public policy has sometimes resembled ever-increasing investments in what we already know, what we already have and what we already do. This brings to mind the quote, usually and questionably attributed to Einstein, that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In this regard, the discourse of innovation has the potential to disrupt the stagnation of ideas and practice by questioning anew what our challenges are and how we might respond to them – bringing to the task new mindsets, tools and practices.
As part of the innovation agenda, policy actors are turning to ideas and practices that stem from the field of design. Design thinking employs a more bottom-up approach that involves co-designing interventions with key stakeholders including service users themselves. The rhetoric of design avoids the conceit that policymakers have all the answers. It also challenges the idea that we can get it right without risk-taking and trial and error. The key tenets of design within the policy context are creativity and vision, collaboration and partnerships, iterative experimentation, and thoughtful up-scaling.
Without doubt, this ‘design turn’ holds promise. However, the challenge is to engage with the complexity of the issues we are facing and what it means to rethink and redesign systems, services and discrete interventions. Starting anew in the face of long-term failure is enticing, but we have to resist the temptation to approach design like a kid with a new toy. Really innovative and productive change is daunting. It requires a mix of depth and breadth in terms of knowledge, skills and capacities. This includes the intellectual capacity for deep insight and understanding of the complex factors creating and sustaining our most pressing social issues alongside – by no means an exhaustive list – political insight, courage, empathy, well developed communication and relationship building skills, imagination and vision.
Our educational institutions have a key role to play in developing practitioners who are thoughtful, creative, resourceful and skilled in working outside of silos and across traditional lines.
About the writer: Dr Sharon Andrews is program manager of RMIT’s Master of Public Policy. Sharon’s research interests include relations of power and freedom in social policy and outcomes focused work in human services.