How a framework from product and service design would help policymakers find the right programs and regulations to solve societal problems
Through my many years working with regulators and policymakers, I have heard that they often struggle at the earliest stages of designing regulation. Often the impetus to develop a new program or regulation starts when a new problem has emerged and become a political priority for politicians. The executive directs the public administration to come up with a solution. Policymakers are often in an awkward position between the executive and the citizens.
Indeed, civil servants often face significant pressure from politicians to develop regulations in a particular way. For example, a standard election promise to raise the minimum wage will inevitably push policymakers to enact such a reform without determining whether it will improve welfare for low-income citizens in practice.
Politicians and policymakers may not have a solid grasp of the causes of the problem or the impact of potential solutions, but face pressure to develop programs and regulations quickly. Policymakers across the world appear to struggle to define the problem they wish to solve, with the resources they have.
For example, traffic fatalities are a problem in many countries. However, the problem is affected by dozens of factors, from car safety technology to driver attentiveness to road quality to weather. These causes might be improved by stricter car safety standards, harsher penalties for drunk driving, more spending on road maintenance or requirements for winter tires. How does the public administration decide what the most significant causes are? How does it design the most effective regulations and programs, while facing pressure from the executive?
Poorly designed regulations and programs bring about huge burdens on society. They stifle innovation and place enormous obligations and costs on businesses and regular people while, at the same time, they do not improve citizens’ welfare. How can the government design programs and regulations that balance costs and benefits across society?
Policymakers are also influenced by their own biases. Banuri et al. found that even at the World Bank and Department for International Development in the UK, policymakers – some of the best in the world – are possibly also driven at times by ideological predisposition, despite significant training in evidence-based policy. The only way to avoid such political and personal biases is through careful deliberation and consideration of the causes of a problem and its potential solutions
How can policymakers broaden their problem solving, avoid cognitive biases and political pressure, and develop practical solutions using their limited resources and time?
The Double Diamond Design Process, developed by Bela Banathy in 1996, and popularised by the British Design Council beginning in 2005, provides such an approach. However, it has rarely been used for government policy.
The four pillars of the Double Diamond Design Process are:
- Discover. The first diamond helps people understand, rather than simply assume what the problem is. It involves speaking to and spending time with people who are affected by the issues.
- Define. The insight gathered from the discovery phase can help you to define the challenge in a different way.
- Develop. The second diamond encourages people to give different answers to the clearly defined problem, seeking inspiration from elsewhere and co-designing with a range of different people.
- Deliver. Delivery involves testing out different solutions at small-scale, rejecting those that will not work and improving the ones that will.
When the government applies this process to challenging policy problems, the four pillars will become:
- Discover. Policymakers and politicians first spend time understanding the specific causes of the issue at hand, rather than assuming (a favourite method for politicians!) or leaning on personal biases. At this stage, the government should engage directly with people affected by the issue and discussing with experts with different viewpoints. This stage helps discover the many causes of an issue.
- Define. The insight gathered from the discovery phase should be used to define which causes of the issue they will target through regulations and programs. Government intervention may not be able to improve all causes of an issue.
- Develop. The second diamond encourages policymakers to develop regulations, policies and programs to target the clearly defined causes of the problem, seeking inspiration from other countries and co-designing with a range of different stakeholders. The development process should engage groups from all levels of society and not favour vested interests, like businesses. Policymakers can use cost-benefit analysis and cost-effectiveness analysis to weigh the pros and cons of different policy options.
- Deliver. Delivery involves testing programs and regulations out at small-scale when possible (e.g. through behavioural economics experiments), rejecting those that will not work and improving the ones that will. Governments should monitor and evaluate programs and regulations to ensure that they are successful in practice and not just in theory.
This approach raises a critical question for me: Are there any public administrations that are structured to apply an innovative framework to how they design programs and regulations?
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