top of page
  • Writer's pictureClara Richards

Innovating for Impact in Public Policy

Post The Policy Lab

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Dr. Derek B. Miller, Director of The Policy Lab, and Lisa Rudnick, Head of the International Peace Advisory Team at Interpeace. Together they ran a series of initiatives at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research between 2006 and 2015 on generating socio-cultural knowledge for use in programming and policymaking; and building new methods for Evidence-Based Programme Design to bring knowledge into the design of action.]

Political systems across democratic countries are becoming more ideologically and politically divided over how to use increasingly limited resources. In the face of these pressures everyone wants results: they want them cheap and they want them now. This demand for better results is falling squarely on civil servants.

In the performance of their jobs, everyone is being asked to do more with less. This demand comes independent of theme, scope, or size of the public institution. It is as true for those working in transportation as it is for those in education or public health or international peace and security; whether in local government or at UN agencies; or else in the NGOs, think tanks, and community-based organizations that partner with them. Even private industry feels the squeeze.

When we say “do more with less” we mean more impact, better results, and more effective outcomes than ever before with less money and time, fewer people, and (often) less political support.

In taking a cue from the private sector, the public sector is looking for solutions in “Innovation.”

Innovation is the act of making possible that which was previously impossible in order to solve a problem. Given that present performance is insufficient to meet demand, there is a turn to innovation (broadly defined) to maximize resources through new methods to achieve goals. In this way, innovation is being treated as a strategic imperative for successful governance.

From our vantage point — having worked on innovation and public policy for over a decade, mostly from within the UN — we see two driving forces for innovation that we believe are going to shape the future of public policy performance and, by extension, the character of democratic governance in the years to come. Managing the convergence of these two approaches to innovation is going to be one of the most important public policy agendas for the next several decades (for a detailed discussion of this topic, see Trying it on for Size: Design and International Public Policy).

The first is evidence-based policymaking. The goal of evidence-based policymaking is to build a base of evidence — often about past performance —  so that lessons can be learned, best practices distilled, and new courses of action recommended (or required) to guide future organizational behavior for more efficient or effective outcomes.

The second force is going to be design. The field of design evolved in the crucible of the arts and not in the Academy. It is therefore a late-comer to public policy. In approaching problems holistically, and with a highly multi-disciplinary approach organized around defining problems and solving them (rather than “contributing to the literature”), design is striving to make a place for itself in public life . It brings new ways of harnessing inspiration, stimulating creativity, performing cooperative learning, and enacting dynamic problem solving. The UK government, for example, is exploring the possibilities of design in the context of its Civil Service Reform Plan. Innovation, in this case, is not about building a base of knowledge to work from; It is about putting ideas to work.

We have been working with both of these innovation communities as scholars/practitioners at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) between 2008 and 2015. From that vantage point— we were able to help understand the need for a new bridge between those two innovative approaches to improving governmental performance and also what each can offer the other.

We’ve noted, for example, how the evidence-based policymaking community is making tremendous strides towards generating more applicable knowledge and making it accessible. But what’s missing is a mechanism for mobilizing knowledge as a strategic asset for policy design and planning processes. The lesson is that the mere accessibility of knowledge is not enough to change practice.

In the design community, by contrast, we found a wealth of tools, techniques, ideas, energy, creativity, and momentum in trying to bring the creative power of designing to the policymaking community. Working in the areas of social innovation, design for policy, and service design, these designers advocate “design research” and recommend methods like interviewing and role playing and user mapping to “empathize” with users so that services and solutions can be crafted for them. There is a strong interest in storytelling, user research, and what’s broadly called “ethnography” as a means of reaching deeper understandings of the people who will benefit from, or use the services being offered. Numerous “toolboxes” are now offered for collective teamworkdevelopment professionals, and human centered design. What is missing here, though, is the needed sufficient rigor in anchoring design propositions in evidence; the skills in falsifying poor (if still popular) design ideas; the imperative to recognize the ethical implications of the new power they are wielding; and to appreciate that there are still massive procedural gaps in delivering designs into the actual administrative systems that will need to adopt them and turn them into plans to serve the public.

In recognizing the relative strengths — but also limitations — of each approach towards policy innovation, we worked to bridge these two distinct areas of work through our work on Evidence-Based Policy Design. Specifically, we aspired to enlist the greatest contributions of evidence-based policymaking — including its criteria, its standards, its transparency, and its fidelity between data and claims — and those from the design field — including its focus on problem-solving, goal-setting, cooperative action, visualization of data, and tools for understanding users and uses of services and policies.

We did not do this in the abstract. We worked full-time on this challenge for four years in support of the UN’s efforts to create a new evidence-based approach to the reintegration of excombatants after war in support of the UN’s Inter-Agency Working Group on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Excombatants — a “wicked problem” if ever there was one. We traveled to Kenya and Somalia to work with field teams actually designing programmers; studied both project-level conduct and policy-level administrative behavior; identified barriers to the use of evidence in policy design; built a conceptual framework for working with evidence (–396.pdf); and then built an actual Prototype — launched at the UN in December, 2013 — that can be used by UN field teams in the design of better solutions in field contexts. That method has now been used to addressed other challenges in other fields, such as Cyber security, and is now entering into a new working relationship with the World Health Organization that sees its potential to improve evidence-based public health including reducing violence against women and children.

Evidence-based policy design is a method for anchoring the policy design process on evidence and moving teams through a generative design process in the context of their own administrative systems. Doing this — rather than advocating for the use of scientific findings — helps civil servants better work with knowledge in the crafting of propositions for action that can be adopted and implemented by the design teams and their partners.

The Evidence-Based Policy Design builds from the strengths of each approach while addressing the specific shortcomings we identified in each. It has the added value of building capacity at the organizational level, strategically orienting design teams towards policy objectives, creating ownership throughout the process, and better ensuring that proposed solutions are well-reasoned because they are informed by evidence

This effort to bridge the evidence-based policymaking community with the design community is now opening new opportunities for collaboration, partnership, agenda-setting, and theory-building between the two communities towards the same objective — better results.

As governments, organizations, communities and citizens themselves call for more innovation to solve the seemingly intractable problems in our public lives, it is high time that we make coordinated efforts to combine the powerful forces of knowledge and human creativity at the heart of our public lives. Because lasting innovation will come from harnessing the fullness of our human capacity.

[Editor’s note: For author correspondence, please write to]

1 view0 comments


bottom of page