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Policy innovation by design: understanding the role of design in the development of innovative public policies

posted on 21.05.2021, 08:27 by Federico Vaz-Canosa
This investigation departed from the premise that there is increasing interest in introducing design approaches for public policy innovation worldwide. To date, this has been primarily achieved through the use of design at the policy implementation stage, typically resulting in new public services. Moreover, the introduction of design for policy has been associated with the creation of ad-hoc structures termed ‘policy labs’ in which design thinking is utilised to explore and co-create policy solutions.
Although the literature on policy innovation has recently started to shift, the focus has historically been determined by the novelty of the policy content instead of the process through which policies come into being. In innovation management theory, this is represented by the product vs process innovation perspectives. Design, on the other hand, has been associated with the development of innovative products and services in the private sector. In order to exploit creativity to produce these innovative outcomes, the most successful organisations have integrated design at more levels than just product development. However, this has not been reflected in its integration in the public sector. Thus, this constrains its potential for contributing to policy innovations.
The overall purpose of this research is to respond to the primary question concerning the role of design in innovative public policymaking, as the effects and requirements of this role remain mostly unexplored. After building a conceptual framework to provide a rationale for introducing design-led approaches into public policymaking, the inquiry first of all explores the design practices which are currently being utilised in the policymaking process; secondly, it describes how design is instilled in public policymaking; and thirdly, it explains the conditions for the successful integration of design in the policymaking process.
The research design adopted for this investigation is based on a pragmatist approach through which qualitative data was obtained by online surveys, participant observations, and in-depth semi-structured interviews with key informants. Three studies which addressed recursively the research aim were implemented in different settings. The first study maps the design activities of policy labs in Europe against the stages of the policymaking cycle. The second study relies on participant observations to explore the introduction of design thinking in policymaking by a UK government team of policy designers. The third and last study consists of a set of interviews with policy analysts, policymakers, and design scholars participating in a project examining the future of governments in the EU. The analysis of the data gathered was primarily conducted through a framework and thematic analysis. Additionally, minor descriptive statistics were used to assist in drawing comparisons within the dataset.
The key findings reveal that the introduction of design faces resistance to reach mainstream policymaking due to cultural differences between the two professional fields. To overcome some of these barriers, design is introduced in different guises, often as the operationalisation of the open policy government agenda.
The main conclusions drawn from this study are the need for specific design tools and techniques for intervening in the public sector, as well as specific design training programmes to equip policymakers with the appropriate skills and mindsets. The contribution to knowledge of the research presented in this thesis is the provision of a new understanding of the role of design as a mode of inquiry and the part it plays in bringing about policy innovation by participating in either reactive, coactive, or proactive policymaking.



  • Loughborough University London


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© Federico Vaz Canosa

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A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University.




Sharon Prendeville ; Mikko Koria

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