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Policy innovation - what, why and how?

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It’s coming up to a year since I joined the Policy Lab team, after five years in policy and strategy roles across the Civil Service. I wanted to share some reflections on policy innovation - what I’ve learned, why it matters, and how policymakers can start to get to grips with it - especially given its relevance in the context of COVID-19. This blog is mainly aimed at policymaker colleagues, but I hope it has resonance more widely.

Annie Norman running a Policy Lab project kickoff workshop.
Experiencing policy innovation first-hand, running a Policy Lab project kickoff workshop.

What do I mean by 'policy innovation'?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the amount of ‘innovation’ jargon out there. So let’s go back to basics. By policy innovation, I’m not talking about government policy related to innovation, but rather about innovation within the policymaking process itself. You might have heard of useful tools such as ‘PESTLE’ (Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Legal and Environmental), ‘SWOT’ (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis, stakeholder mapping and, of course, the ‘ROAMEF’ policy cycle (explained comprehensively in the Green Book). At Policy Lab we are taking a fresh look at the policy process as a whole, and exploring where new tools, techniques and methods might complement existing tools, help to improve policy processes and ultimately deliver better outcomes for citizens.

Why does policy innovation matter?

If you’d asked me this time last year why policy innovation was important, I might have improvised something about ‘changing and improving’ and digital tools. Since then I’ve learnt, first-hand, a great deal more about some of the challenges and potential biases in the policymaking process, and how new ideas, techniques and methods might help to overcome them. For example, it can be difficult to get underneath statistics and trends to understand what’s going on at a human level and why. Without this insight we might be missing something important when it comes to developing effective policy. This is where methods such as lived experience research (ethnography) and co-design can really add value, in combination with more traditional approaches like quantitative analysis.

This is an image of a Policy Lab co-design workshop with the young people.
Policy Lab co-design workshop with young people, in collaboration with DCMS and the Youth Voice Steering Group.

What are we doing now?

At Policy Lab, our work to improve policymaking often involves bringing ‘outside’ disciplines, such as anthropology, design and futures thinking into a policy context. This blog will highlight three ways we are doing this as we also adapt our work to the new challenges of COVID-19.

Understanding people’s lived experience

Firstly, we are exploring how broadening the evidence base can help policymakers to make better sense of complexity, in particular analysing not only what is happening, but why it is happening. One way we do this is by looking at the day-to-day experiences of people who are affected by government services and policies. Most recently, and in response to the need to comply with social distancing measures, we have been working to adapt our ethnographic methods for remote research, allowing participants to invite us into their lives ‘virtually’. 

These are two mobile phone screenshots from recent remote video ethnography work.
Screenshots from video ethnography work (now conducted remotely).

Bringing diverse voices into policymaking

Secondly, we are exploring how we can bring diverse voices into the policymaking process, including a wider range of people in a meaningful and constructive way. As well as policymaking colleagues, this might include frontline operational staff, people from the public, private, voluntary and community sectors, and members of the public themselves. We think that working collaboratively in this way can lead to a deeper understanding of problems and better solutions. Stephen Bennett of Policy Lab recently wrote about how we are developing and evolving our participatory methods, creating both virtual and inclusive spaces.

Imagining multiple futures

And thirdly, we draw on techniques such as foresight and speculative design, together with a broader range of people, to imagine what different futures might look like, and what this means for policymakers now. In this current context, we are thinking about multiple future worlds in light of the impact of COVID-19.

This is an images of Policy Lab's adapted Futures framework adapted from Anna Roumiansteva’s model, The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking.
Policy Lab’s futures thinking framework, adapted from Anna Roumiansteva’s model, The Fourth Way: Design Thinking Meets Futures Thinking.

Where you can start with policy innovation

If you are interested in policy innovation, I have three suggestions for how you can get started.

Firstly, at Policy Lab we are as open as we can be, sharing our work and learnings through our blog, twitter, slideshare, and the Open Policy Making Toolkit

Secondly, I have reflected that there are some important questions for people involved in making policy to consider, to support an innovative approach:

  • What is the challenge we’re trying to solve? Is there consensus on this, or different opinions?
  • What is assumed about this issue? How can these assumptions be tested?
  • What don’t we know - including not only about what is happening, but why it is happening? How can we understand this better?
  • Who else might have insight, and how can we include them in the policymaking process? No individual can possibly have all the answers, but a policymaker is in a unique position to bring people and perspectives together so that a wider range of ideas can be generated and explored. 

Thirdly, if you’re a UK civil servant and you’d like to receive updates on our work, and how we’re applying our innovative tools in the context of COVID-19, please get in touch with us to join our network:

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1 comment

  1. Comment by Rod posted on

    Very interesting this article. We are in need of implementations of these innovations here in Brazil, where literally politics is just a name associated with corruption.



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