Policy By Design Symposium

Penny Hagen, August 2018

In late May, over 60 central and local government policymakers came together in Auckland for a two day ‘Policy by Design’ symposium exploring the role of co-design and design in policy development.

The aim of the two days was to explore how design-led approaches have the potential to make the policy process more accessible to the people most affected by it, to develop policy that is more responsive to their needs and experiences, and to create a stronger feedback loop between policy and its impact on the ground.

This blog provides a brief summary of the two days.

The Symposium began with a provocation about the potential for design-led approaches (practiced well) to provide:

  • Means to involve multiple stakeholders & perspectives in ways that disrupt traditional power dynamics and let different voices be heard

  • Engagement with complexity of how and why things work (or not) in practice, including valuing local knowledge and being responsive to place

  • Learning loops across and between implementation and policy

  • The building of capability and conditions for different outcomes through the process of collaboration and mutual learning.

PbD landscape.jpg

A simple diagram was used to explore the landscape and relationship between policy and implementation. The need to build greater connections across this landscape was well illustrated in a recent paper by Eppel et al (2018) which outlines the challenges with conventional ‘one sized fits all’ policy approaches#. The authors make an argument for ‘complexity informed’ approaches that recognise the knowledge of local communities and engage more effectively with complexity of social systems.

...past efforts to solve complex policy problems have been too fragmented and not built on an understanding of the complex social systems they must work in..

...we cannot know in advance the precise nature of the specific knowledge, resources and solutions that will work to change the material, social and emotional circumstances…

In addition to encouraging the adoption of design-led approaches to policy development the symposium emphasised the need to view design-led efforts in the implementation space more intentionally through a policy lens. These inevitably produce insights into how policy is or isn’t working in practice and why, as well as what different or more effective approaches might or could contain. As such they are an essential source of practice-based evidence and quality advice for informing current and future policy.

PbD opportunities.jpg

Attendees explored seven different case studies from across local and central government in Aotearoa NZ. These case studies provided examples of both policy-led and delivery-led projects and show-cased the different ways design-led approaches can contribute to better quality policy advice.

Gaylene Sharman of Te Puna Manawa shared her experience within a co-design process.  For Gaylene the Healthy Homes co-design process was the first time the needs and experiences of whānau (extended family or family group) and frontline workers had became a central and valued input to the policy and implementation process.  Gaylene’s kōrero provided a moving call to action, grounding the discussion in the lives and outcomes of whānau who bear the costs of policy and implementation decision-making.

The human imperative for better design and policy decision-making was reinforced by Hoani Lambert and Ralph Johnson who shared their experiences integrating policy and service design within Oranga Tamariki (Ministry for Children),  laying out their continuing journey to find better ways to align policy development and service delivery. Key messages for the rōpū from their talk included:

  • If Policy is the backstage and Design is the front stage — ensure it’s the same stage. ##

  • Capturing insights doesn’t necessarily lead to change.

  • The absence of friction may mean you need to lean in a bit more.

  • Gnarly social problems take time.

Leading expert Dr Ingrid Burkett from The Australian Centre for Social Innovation Ingrid explored the origins of policy development, urging us to be more intrapreneurial and less crisis-driven in our approach.

Where does policy come from.jpg

Ingrid built on the landscape diagram using it to illustrate a development towards systematic design across policy areas.


Key points from Ingrid's session included:

“If you don’t want to listen and learn (or my system doesn’t), and I’m not prepared to act on that learning, don’t do co-design….”  

And “If I do co-design, I need to do it well…no bodginess…”

Dr Emma Blomkamp from The Policy Lab in Melbourne also shared key insights from their research into building innovation capability in policy teams.

enabling people centred.jpg

There was a focus within the symposium on building on existing practice and knowledge about design and policy. The second day included a range of tools and techniques that are already being applied in the policy space. One of the most popular sessions was Ingrid Burkett’s Theory of Change for prototyping and testing. A set of Methods in Action Cards (Policy + Design is) which provide examples of design in practice have also been developed out of the symposium.


Over the two days attendees worked to unpack some of the challenges that need to be addressed and negotiated in order to embed this way of working more broadly, beginning to identify shifts in practices and next steps to take.

PbD wall map.jpg

Three “Deep Dive” sessions on the second day covered three of the most salient challenges related to gaining impact from design-led approaches in policy settings. These included:

  1. Connecting and utilising evidence developed through design to inform policy development, evaluation and decision-making.

  2. Shifting the dynamics of power and participation in people-centred policy development

  3. Creating the conditions and capabilities for prototyping, testing and experimentation in a policy context.


To close the symposium, people worked in groups with How Might We questions that reflect key challenges (opportunities) to work differently that had been identified through the symposium.  Groups discussed and captured what was needed to meet the challenge.  There were also creative responses to the challenge, and personal actions to finish up.

Attendees left the symposium with the following takeaways:

  • A better sense of design-led and co-design approaches involve

  • More confidence in using design-led approaches and their application and value

  • New perspectives on the different roles people play and how things work across different parts of the system/local and central government,

  • With peers and people working across local and central government

  • Motivation and hope about the work and the potential of working in people-centred ways

  • A different understanding about evidence and the role of practice-based evidence

  • Some specific things to try and implement

  • Practical tools and things to put straight into action.

We will shortly be publishing the case studies, more summary findings and all of the tools and resources from the symposium so please follow our Twitter feed (@CodesignLab_AKL) for the latest updates.

From Complexity to Collaboration A provocation for change by Elizabeth Eppel, Girol Karacaoglu and Donna Provoost 2018
## From Emma Blomkamp's blog about the symposium