Anna Winters, acting Head of Creativity at Scottish Government, is leading a pilot project to apply a design process to policy development. Here she tells the story of the “insight stage” and the lessons learned so far.
Last year we were approached by the Glasgow Institute of Design Innovation to take part in a research study considering ‘Creating Cultures of Innovation’. The team at InDI were considering the policy environment and looking at ways in which design-led approaches could enhance policy development. Given our role in developing creativity within government, we were keen to work together. It took some time to find the right policy area, but with support from the Director General, we settled on ‘Physical Activity’.
In Government we are used to defining a problem, thinking about it, developing an action plan quickly and then implementing the plan. The design process challenged this way of working and was unsettling at first. We were forced to spend a long time unpicking the problem. It wasn’t that we didn’t have any ideas – we had plenty to say! – but after a session working together we’d leave the room saying, “But we’re not doing anything about it!”
This was new for us and new for the designers who hadn’t dealt with policy previously but the design team were confident and they kept encouraging us to “trust the process”.
As we delved into the topic we found that it was huge and complex. There’s no policy that can exist in isolation and as we looked at the problem we uncovered related topics of weight loss, the built and natural environment, sport, mental health and invariably ended up talking about the gym…. We started to frame our focus and early on we decided this was not about sport; this was about encouraging people to not sit down for half an hour.
Our ‘homework’ was to go and talk to three people about being active and share those stories. In a world where evidenced-based policy is the mantra, an approach that was deliberately subjective was very challenging. Within our team were people who were renowned experts in their fields and yet we were saying, “Yes that’s great but let’s not get bogged down in that right now”. It wasn’t easy for them to engage with the process until one of the group said, “We know all this…but we’re not changing people’s behaviour.” Policy had made inroads but not enough – marketing campaigns can only do so much. It was important that with Director General support we had permission to take risks and try something different.
We arranged more conversations, focusing on two areas, the Highlands and Drumchapel. We had to be tenacious. At first, our contacts in these areas brought people to meet us, but these people were already really active. We learned that we had to go to where people were. We went to bingo halls. It was great. These conversations will stay with us and were a real leveller. We talked with people who wanted to be active and they told us that getting there was really hard. To get active you have to sweat and you smell. We wouldn’t normally have that in a policy discussion!
Through the design process we’ve learned to listen in a different way and think about things differently, to ask ourselves questions that we wouldn’t normally consider in a policy setting, “How did that interview make you feel?”, “What did your instinct tell you?”. We had to be convinced. Somehow it felt like cheating! But there’s no stage at which we can’t be told we’re wrong. We go back and test out our ideas with people and check. This approach has enabled a new dialogue. Yes, ultimately there are people who will make decisions in relation to the policy we come up with, but essentially this is an incredibly democratic process.
We’ve learned that design brings some really strong principles that you don’t mess with – the divergent and convergent thinking of the double diamond; the need to really spend time exploring the issues; the new possibilities that come from re-framing problems; listening and observing with empathy – but then there’s a lot of elasticity.
What next? We’re moving on to develop the design direction in the physical activity project and over the summer we’ll be continuing to work in the Highlands and Drumchapel, prototyping new ideas with people. More broadly, we’re considering how Government works with design process and where else we can apply the approach to ensure that ownership and sustainability are built in.
It does seem that there’s a ground swell of interest in design in public services. We know that government’s interest in the approach can give others confidence but we’ve taken great comfort in learning about what other organisations are doing. There are great examples of design improving services and projects like Better by Design are incredibly important. I’m looking forward to hearing more from the organisations taking part and sharing our ideas and learning about the design process.