Co-design is a mindset, in the world of problem solving.

Unsurprisingly, co-design has also become a buzzword in public policy design at the moment. While the discussions are inspiring, the outcomes seem to be rarely actionable: by trying to be too comprehensive we are loosing grip on reality (Claudio, 2017).

The reason is that challenges keep coming from both governments and designers’ sides. There seems to be lots of extreme contradictions between these two worlds.

So, what are the challenges? Is co-design still a feasible idea in public problem solving?

Challenges From Designers’ Perspective

Co-design risks being little more than a buzzword (Blomkamp, 2018). So in Blomkamp’s article, it defines co-design

as a design-led process, involving creative and participatory principles and tools to engage different kinds of people and knowledge in public problem solving.

Based on this definition, there are three key components of co-design. The challenges are also from these.

  • Principles — to involve in-depth collaboration with users
  • Process — to be agile
  • Tools — to enable engagement, comfortably and inspiredly

Challenge 1 — Majority or Everyone?

No matter you are an amateur or experts of co-design, you must know one of the principle is to focus on the major user groups only. In other words, building a product for “everyone” is the best way to loose focus and speed. Creativity needs constraints and being too broad is never a good idea.

However, public service design often focuses on high-level decisions that impact “everyone”. By fear of discrimination we often end up in the exceptions game: “This service is good but wouldn’t work for this very specific population” (Claudio, 2017). In addition, this “everyone” has a very broad definition, including end users, citizens, stakeholders, professionals and experts.

So here comes the challenge — how might we guarantee the accessibility while only focusing on a specific user group? Should we only include a specific user group in user collaboration and create persona only for them? For example, to co-design a policy for social welfare system, we need to bring users to participate in the design process. They may include the young, the old, the healthy, the unhealthy, families or employees. We don’t want to let anyone out, do we?

Challenge 2— Agile or Authoritative?

In a typical process of co-design, being agile means ready to change. However, governments have a limited space for test and failure. They are expected to roll out error-free policies that will live on forever, or at least until the next reform. Going quick and dirty on policies and regulations is less recommended.

Also, iteration and changes will also affect end users. How might we ensure that every user can embrace changes very well and smoothly?

So here comes the challenge — how might we be agile without affecting government’s reputation and end-users’ daily life?

Challenge 3 — Speech Freedom or Play it safe?

There are lots of tools to enable communication and engagement in design world. For example, post-it notes, sketches, kanban board and online collaboration tools. They can be easily applied in public sector settings.

Since the existence of researchers can always be a interference in contextual inquiry or interview, how might we make people feel safe and open to talk? Especially in front of a government staff, who may be wearing a formal suit and tie and knows every details of your personal information.

So here comes the challenge — how might we create collaborative tools which can help people to feel safe and open up in public sector settings?

Challenges From Government’s Perspective

A large group of casually attired workers gather on a cold winters morning in a co-design workshop in Canberra. One thing that made the group feel more like a collective was the black and white lanyards each member wore. Apparently, they were from the Australian Public Service (APS). One topic they were discussing, was the challenges that they met when applying co-design in the APS.

Voting by a collaborative ‘dots and sticky-notes’ way, here are the top 3 challenges prioritised by participants.

  1. Cultural change — the structure and culture of government is not well suited to co-design.
  2. Political and ministerial intervention — balance between ministerial demands and user needs
  3. Difficult to maintain focus on long term outcomes as well as be adaptive/responsive in short term — restricted by budget cycles, IT development and timeframes

Given all these challenges and the contradictory nature between design and government, is co-design still a realistic idea in public problem solving?

In my opinion, we should never stop co-designing public policies — as long as we can solve all these identified challenges by using co-design.

For the solutions

I might not be able to give solutions for now on how to improve co-design for public sectors. But here are some ideas from current researchers for reference.

Ideas from the workshop hosted by Emma Blomkamp from PaperGiant:
Principles in co-designing public policies:
Outcomes-focused — What are we trying to achieve?
Inclusive — Who should be involved?
Participative — How and when can we make it safe and easy for people to have meaningful input?
Respectful — How will we ensure participants feel respected and valued?
Adaptive — How and when will we review, share and adapt?
Ideas from Claudio Vandi in his medium
Adopt an inductive approach: start from solving specific problems that concern a subset of the population. Then apply the solution to a wider group;
Involve decision makers and beneficiaries from the beginning. Co-design should be a participative process from start to end.
Have countries to pilot specific policies. In the case where multiple countries (or cities) are involved each part could experiment a policy and bring back result to the group. What works can be deployed at a larger scale.
Go in beta mode: governments can try new services in beta mode and be very clear about the “experimental” part of it. That’s what the french government does with https://beta.gouv.fr/ : a platform to host new public services under development. With the right communication and the right user group initiatives like this can allow for experimenting new ways of delivering services to citizens.