In Brief | Design thinking and policymaking

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.
The following resources will introduce you to some recent resources on design thinking and policymaking in the public sector. Feedback welcome here!

Mario Katsonis provides a definition of design thinking in The Mandarin "as a ‘human-centred’ approach to innovation drawing from the processes used by industrial and product designers ... increasingly being used by organisations to address open-ended and complex challenges." While design has long been seen as a component of policy development, it has been rarely spoken about in design thinking terms. Joannah Luetjens and Michael Mintrom set out to remedy this in the September 2016 issue of the Australian Journal of Public Administration (AJPA -available to all IPAA members). They defined design thinking as a problem-solving approach characterised by curiosity and empathy, which seeks to interpret how its target populations engage with their world.

Some elements of design thinking have long been applied in social science research and in public administration. As Joannah Luetjens observes in an associated Centre for Public Impact blog post “What is new is how those elements are now being combined to produce powerful insights into citizen actions and their interactions with governments.” As the Mandarin brief Improving commissioning through design thinking observes "focusing on the lived experiences of service users can faciliate better policymaking....[and] implementation of programs that enhance public value." In that way design thinking can reduce gaps between the goals of policymaking and citizens' experience of government.

Public policymaking involves the development and adoption of a course of action by government to attain specific results. The Australian Policy Handbook observes that policymaking is “very fast moving…objectives may be overtaken by unintended consequences… which undermine the policy’s effect or create new, complex problems.” There are a wide range of actors, many rules to follow, a tendency for certain beliefs to prevail over others and for a complex issue to be framed in a particular way - eg tobacco controls to be seen as a public health epidemic rather than an economic good and 'fracking' as an environmental disaster rather than a new energy boom. 

Peter Shergold’s 2015 report Learning from Failure reiterates this complexity. “The work of government is hard. Its challenges are wicked. Problems do not always have defined boundaries, solutions can (and should) be contested and authority is ambiguous.” Tapping the expertise and perspectives of citizens and collaborating with other sectors can assist with this complexity by helping to define the problem/challenge being addressed, improve the use of evidence in policymaking  and developing more innovative and valued solutions to complex policy problems.

Design thinking offers a range of tools and investigative techniques for problem definition and mechanism design. See our earlier In Brief on Design Thinking for more. Concepts such as co-creation and user-centred design have emerged to describe the systematic pursuit of sustained collaboration between government agencies, non-government organisations, communities and individual citizens. In a 2019 research article in Policy and Politics, Jenny Lewis, Michael McCann and Emma Blomkamp examine the impact of design thinking on policymaking in practice, using the example of public sector innovation (PSI) labs which they concludes are still some distance from achieving wider impacts on policymaking. .

Key design thinking strategies include environmental scanning, sensemaking, mapping, iterative prototyping, participant observation and open-to-learning observations. Behavioural insights are also used for designing public policy (see In-Brief on this topic). The Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) website also has some useful resources.

In the public policy literature (see here and here for example) and reported outcomes of both pilot and ongoing initiatives, the case for co-production is compelling. It embodies and promotes democratic principles; maximises the inputs from expert and lay sources; builds capacity and trust; has proven strategically efficacious in policy areas that involve behavioural change at both societal and individual levels so services are more efficient, effective, and sustainable.

The Parliamentary Library’s Research Paper Citizens Engagement in Policymaking the and Design of Public Services discusses the democratic imperative for integrating citizen engagement into policymaking.

Budget Paper no 2 of the 2018-19 Budget highlights the recent mainstreaming of design thinking in government by recommending “the use of design thinking methodologies to help solve complex problems …. incorporating citizen feedback to help identify improvements to service delivery.
Some recent examples of successful user-centred policy design and implementation include:

Design thinking can clash with traditional linear policy development. In a 2017 article in The Mandarin, Stephen Easton observes that that there is a view that “traditional top-down models need to be flipped, so that experience and evidence from the delivery end plays a bigger and more ongoing role in policy development” The potential mismatch or tension between the two is discussed in the 2014 book Design for Policy by Danish author Christian Bason (and also in this video).

Emma Blomkamp, in a 2018  Early View article in the AJPA (available to IPAA members) argues that the jury is still out on whether policy co-design is adding value for government. She does not take issue with the philosophy behind co-design but argues that despite the many claims made about the value of co-design, very little rigorous evaluation has been done to show that it really does improve citizens’ lives. The Mandarin has a recent article on whether co-design is "just a buzz word" at this link. Amanda Clarke and Jonathan Craft also argue in Governance that, despite the advantages of using design thinking in policymaking, it does not sufficiently account for the political and organizational contexts of policy work.  Design thinking can  err in "universally privileging one particular policy style over others, and fails to account for the reality of policy mixes".

There are many international resources on design thinking in policy making. Christian Bason, who runs the Danish Design Centre tells us about a new way of creating public policy in Helping Governments be Different by Design. The Centre for Public Impact has issued a briefing bulletin Design for Policy and Public Services which provides some tools and examples for applying design thinking to policy making.

At the US Office of Personnel and Management (OPM), Stephanie Wade gives us Laws from the Lab. Arianne Miller, the Director of the OPM Lab presented to an IPAA ACT event in February 2018 – the slides from the presentation can be found at this link. Across the Atlantic in the UK, Andrea Siodmok talks about the UK Policy Lab  and building new services around people’s experiences. The UK Policy Lab also has an Open Policy Making Toolkit on its website as well as a Slideshare of recent work of the Lab.The University of Melbourne has published a paper on the rise of public  labs, which gives examples of policy labs around the world.

Australian governments are increasingly turning to public sector innovation (PSI) labs to take new approaches to policy and service design. Some examples at the federal level include the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's Innovation Xchange, the BETA Unit in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (mentioned above) and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science's BizLab.  At the state level, examples include Victoria's Behavioural Insights Unit and NSW's Behavioural Insights Unit. University of Melbourne has also identified public policy labs around Australia and New Zealand, available at this link.


Contact IPAA

ABN: 24 656 727 375
Phone: (02) 6154 9800
Unit 4A, 16 National Circuit,
Barton ACT 2600

Postal Address

PO Box 4349
Kingston ACT 2604

Subscribe to IPAA

Subscribe to our mailing list to receive information about upcoming events, initiatives and activities.