Service Design in Gov: User Centred Policy Design fishbowl — September 2022

5 min readNov 3, 2022
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Allen

Back in May 2022, Mark Dalgarno approached me asking for feedback on a session proposal for Service Design in Government on ‘What is user-centred policy design good for?’

This was to be a participatory (fishbowl) discussion to bring together the voices of the curious, the practitioners and the ‘experts’ to share what works, what hasn’t worked and how we might do things differently.

Whilst reading the opening sentence, I found myself offering to co-facilitate with Mark — after all, I’d led the User Centred Policy Design team of the Ministry of Justice, and know some things, but mostly because Mark and I had passed each other like GovShips in the night* and I’d never had the opportunity to work with him.

Designing and delivering this session together was joyful.

Firstly, because Mark suggested that we pitched the idea to a few UCPD experts (and friends) who could help ‘seed’ the discussion — as stepping into the fishbowl can feel a bit intimidating. We reached out to Alejandra, Andy and Darius. I’d been lucky to work with Ale at MOJ and Andy through the Policy Design community, but Darius was another GovShip in the night so I was really thrilled to be hearing about his experiences. All three said yes 💃🏼

Our session was right at the end of the day, which worked really well because the morning’s agenda had Andy and Lucy’s 1:1 discussion on ‘Public policy design: making design core business for government’ and Liam and Charlotte (from the Home Office policy lab) presented on ‘How service ownership can help deliver better policy outcomes’ — so we had a nice ‘runway’ of content to lead into our fishbowl discussion. Plus those sessions were a slightly different format (presentations on a main stage as opposed to group discussion) so folks were buzzing with ideas to share.

Saying that, we did have the fear that topics might run dry and so Mark and I prepared a few questions/talking points to have in our back pocket (which we also shared with our lovely ‘panel’ in advance). These included:

  • What do we mean by user-centred policy design?
  • Is it just about bringing more of the user-perspective into policy-design?
  • Where might you start if you’re an organisation that hasn’t done UCPD before?
  • Who is involved in UCPD?
  • Should this be led from Policy or Digital?
  • Should DDaT functions be promoting UCPD to policy teams, or isn’t it a core function for DDaT?
  • Should you have a UCPD team? How are they different from other researchers and designers you might have in a Digital function?
  • What types of (policy) problems might UCPD be good for? What is the value proposition? Is there a space where UCPD wouldn’t be suitable?
  • What problem are we trying to solve with policy design by making it more ‘user-centred’?
  • What might success look like for a UPCD team or practitioner?
  • What conditions need to be in place to make a success of UCPD?
  • What are the typical outputs of UCPD?
  • Can you do short Discoveries when using UCPD or do they have to be longer to reflect longer term policy activities?

[I’d be happy to write about any of those if folks are interested. I’ve got a few policy design blog posts planned….]

So how did the fishbowl go? What conversations took place?

(As this was a Chatham House rules session, I’ve added snippets and have excluded any information that could identify participants. If there’s anything here you’d like removed, you can direct message me on Twitter)

  • ‘What needs to change is our language — thinking less about ‘users’ and more about residents, citizens, communities and craft spaces that support people and their needs’
  • ‘UCD is old news, it’s important but it’s not enough.’ [I’ve reflected in my previous blog post about how working in Labs is like being stuck in this weird middle land]
  • ‘The standard UCD toolbox doesn’t cut it in policy design — we need to acknowledge that a new discipline has emerged and properly equip people with the skills (and community) to progress.’
  • ‘People are still worried to talk to users. They fear that the public will ask about all the things public sector are doing wrong, and they won’t know how to respond.’
  • ‘Surely Politicians are the most user-centred of us all? They are out in their constituency every Friday.’
  • ‘The pace of changing Ministers causes disruption, especially to Policy teams. There’s an opportunity to support that ‘re-briefing’ process, by giving them insights from user-centred work to inform options.’
  • ‘How can user researchers and behavioural scientists become best friends? What are the opportunities to work together across the Digital and Data boundary?’
  • ‘UCD can be brought in to de-risk and have fewer unintended (bad) consequences’
  • ‘We can’t talk about Human Centred Design (HCD) or UCD without acknowledging the characteristics of design thinking can mirror white supremacy culture.’
  • ‘There is much organisational ‘dark matter’ — what do you do when you surface that?’
  • ‘We should consider the ethical friction of a situation — when we find a barrier, we need to reflect on it, understand it, not just try to remove everything at once’
  • ‘It’s a marathon, not a sprint. The little bits you do everyday are chipping away, we’re going in tthe right direction. The pressure to do better for our users is that thing we can keep bringing’
  • ‘UCD is a power-sharing agreement’
  • ‘We are the change agents. Go back and make it happen. If not us, who?’

And what would we — as facilitators — do differently?

  • Holding the space is always the biggest challenge. Knowing if/when to nudge participants towards a different line of conversation, or when to encourage other people to join the fishbowl, or how to remind folks to leave an empty chair (and vacate if there isn’t one!) You never want to control the conversation, you want it to naturally flow. You never want anyone to feel unwelcome, whilst also welcoming new voices into the space.
  • The room wasn’t the best for the format. It had a very squeaky floor and poor acoustics. Plus had a real aversion to the colour of the curtains.

But also, what went well?

  • I was delighted by how much participation we had — especially from folks who are curious about the policy design community, and found new people to connect to.
  • Mark is a great organiser & facilitator. Grateful to have had the opportunity to team up and learn from him.
  • The opening panel format to seed those opening ideas works really well. Thank you again Darius, Ale, Andy.
  • Also thanks for note-taking and for always being so supportive.
Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Allen

*other names are available (#UKGovCrush)




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