• Opinion
  • November 22, 2018
  • 9 minutes
  • 1

How co-design can eliminate bias in evidence-based policymaking

Opinion: New Zealand is working with indigenous populations to design better policy

This opinion piece was written by Ben Bielski, Principal Advisor at New Zealand’s Te Ture Taiohi (Youth Justice Residences).


Although the global trend toward evidence-based public policy should be welcomed, it must also be approached with caution. Minority groups, especially indigenous populations, are disadvantaged by the unbridled application of evidence-based public policy — because “evidence” is defined by reference to Western norms.

In 2015, an independent panel was appointed to overhaul Aotearoa, New Zealand’s care, protection and youth justice systems. In this piece, I explore the panel’s approach to this overhaul and discuss how co-design was used to mitigate structural biases that would otherwise manifest when evidence-based design is used.

Redesigning the social care system

Multiple reviews of Aotearoa’s care, protection and youth justice system have failed to reduce some of its more troubling statistics. In 2014, Aotearoa recorded the worst rate of family violence in the developed world; there were 5,188 individual young people in the state’s care and 19,623 individual cases of child abuse.

The indigenous Māori, who account for around 15% of the population, were (and remain) significantly more likely to enter into the care and protection and youth justice systems. They also stay in those systems longer and are more likely to be the subject of care orders or incarceration. In 2015, when the Minister of Social Development announced a redesign of this system, she was sure to give a mandate to make system-level changes.

Prime Minister Norman Kirk shaking hands with a tamariki at a Bay of Plenty Marae

Aotearoa typically takes an evidence-based approach to the design of social policy, referred to as “social investment”. Social investment applies rigorous and evidence-based investment practices to social services. Evaluations and academic sources generally dominate that pool of evidence, and when it comes to the provision of care, protection and youth justice, there is no paucity of research. The panel’s final report cited over 400 unique sources of evidence from around the world.

The panel referred to this evidence as the “Voice of the Expert” (which also drew from expert interviews and reference groups). Importantly, they recognised that this alone was an inadequate source from which to design user-centred, system-level change. It was read against a “Voice of Intent” and “Voice of Experience”.

The Voice of Intent included terms of reference, principles and objectives. It acted as a reference point for any findings, ensuring the principles and objectives of the overhaul retained their primacy throughout design. The Voice of Experience placed “the child at the centre of design”.

It asked users about their experience and involved them throughout the entire redesign. In total, 78 tamariki (children or young people), predominantly tamariki Māori, participated in this design. Their views were collated into insights, which were further refined by the expert panel.

Evidence is thought of as information from credible sources — but this is a Western conception

Involving Māori and tamariki Māori in this way curtailed the weight that would generally be given to evidence in the design of social policy. Broadly speaking, evidence can be thought of as information from credible sources — but this is a Western conception.

For Māori, evidence is whakaaro (thoughts, opinions and ideas, or conscience), sourced from the experiences of the individual and their tupuna (ancestors), or from whakatauki (proverbs or aphorisms). This knowledge is not circulated through academic journals but remains within and differs between marae, hapū or iwi (if iwi are thought of as tribal groups, then hapū are smaller groups within that tribe and Mārae are meeting houses within that hapū).

Defining evidence from a Western perspective operates as a form of neo-colonisation because it excludes such indigenous conceptions. When evidence is defined from a western paradigm, Māori must either have their evidence excluded or change their practice to ensure their whakaaro is heard.

Mitigating bias

In the design of public policy, we must first begin by identifying our assumptions. Even design processes that encourage innovation set boundaries, by definition. Who or what is excluded by any design process must be considered from perspectives other than our own.

This point is critical in Aotearoa. For Māori, involvement in decision-making is an expression of partnership, protection and participation in accordance with The Treaty of Waitangi — Aotearoa’s founding constitutional document that established a partnership between indigenous Māori and British settlers. It is only through co-design with other groups that we can identify the limits of design processes and see that the postulates of discussion are often varied.

To truly mitigate the biases of evidence-based policy through co-design, the co-design process must be genuine and this begins with the approach. Designers should not expect participants to conform to their approach when seeking input from user groups. In their approach to co-design, the panel recognised a Māori principle of whakamanawa. Whakamanawa refers to creating a space in which Māori are empowered and supported to participate.

Through this, Māori felt comfortable participating in design and valuable insights could be gained. These insights led to fundamental change in the design and implementation of the new Ministry for Children — Oranga Tamariki.

For instance, a new section has been added to the empowering statute for this Ministry. This section places considerable obligations on the Ministry’s Chief Executive that are not replicated elsewhere in the public sector. Notably, the Chief Executive must ensure that the policies, practice and services of the Ministry have regard to mana tamaiti and the whakapapa of Māori tamariki, and the whanaungatanga responsibilities of their whānau, hapū and iwi.

Mana tamaiti means the inherent value and dignity of a young person, derived in part from their whakapapa — or multi-generational relationships from whom they descend. Whanaungatanga refers to the wider kinship ties that need to be protected to ensure the maintenance of a person’s sense of belonging and identity. Without co-design, this section would not have been added.

An evidence-based approach to the design of public policy is meritorious — it removes political motives from policy design and increases the efficacy of investment. However, evidence is typically thought of through a  Western paradigm that excludes indigenous conceptions of evidence. To mitigate this bias and create user-centric social change, indigenous populations and user groups must be enabled to genuinely participate in the design of any public service. — Ben Bielski

(Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons, Unsplash)

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