• Opinion
  • February 15, 2019
  • 6 minutes
  • 1

User-centred policy design — this is how we do it

Opinion: Innovation insights from the UK Ministry of Justice's user-centred policy design unit

user-centred policy design

This piece was written by Alice Carter, a product manager at the UK’s Ministry of Justice. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


At the end of last year, the UK Ministry of Justice’s User-Centred Policy Design unit (UCPD) were nominated for Apolitical’s Public Service Team of the Year.

UCPD is about involving the user at every point of the policymaking cycle — in research, in identifying problems and in generating ideas to improve government services and policies.

Sadly we were not “officially” voted as the best team. But for me, like “Best Friend”, there can be more than one “Best Team”.

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Here’s why we’re still the best:

1. We’ve pioneered the model of having in-house policy design teams in the UK

Three years ago, the UCPD team was born within the Digital department in the Ministry of Justice, working with policy advisors to apply design thinking to the biggest challenges. Things like modernising the courts and justice system, and creating a rehabilitative prison and probation service.

We were the first team like this housed within a department, but now teams are springing up across the UK government; in the Department for Education, HM Revenue and Customs, and Department for Work & Pensions.

We saw the need to use user-centred design earlier on in the policymaking process

We saw the need to use user-centred design earlier on in the policymaking process, to allow the department to build better digital products, develop better policy, and ultimately improve the experience of our users.

We actively engage with people all over government to talk about what we are doing, share our model, our ways of working and our experience (particularly things that we’ve struggled with) because we know it won’t work if we are the only ones.

2. We’ve established the value of user-centred design outside of Digital

To begin with, we were a team of five working in one policy area. Policy teams approached working with us with some apprehension. Now the team has grown to 25 people in five multidisciplinary teams, working on the department’s highest priority issues.

We’ve worked on issues like reducing reoffending in young offenders, giving victims more information about how to get help and helping separating parents to agree childcare arrangement outside of court.

We prioritise work every quarter to make sure we are always working on the right things, and have recently set up our own delivery team to help us build digital prototypes quickly when we see digital opportunities.

3. We deliver value and build capability across the department

Working in-house allows us to do more than an external agency. We don’t just write recommendations and move on, we make sure our ideas can be delivered and iterated, and we build capability across the department.

The hardest thing to build up is the capability to test and experiment because it feels risky for government to get things wrong.

For us, it worked best when we partnered with an operational site that can act as a sandbox to test ideas.

Crucially we work with the policy teams not for them and involve them along the entire process. We try our best not to use jargon that might alienate people and explain why we’re doing each thing we do. The best result is when someone we’ve worked with claims ownership of the work and ideas.

4. We never stop reflecting, iterating and adapting

Experimenting and iterating is at the heart of how we develop policy and products. But we also apply it to the way we work. We know that we can always do better so we regularly reflect and review our practices in sessions called Retros. Each team will have Retros throughout the quarter, and the entire UCPD unit has quarterly Retros to look at our processes.

It takes a brave policy professional to leap into something new

Most importantly we recognise the need to be flexible because it takes a very brave policy professional to leap into something new. We constantly adapt and reshape user-centred design, agile & lean methodologies to best fit the context and people we work with.

This is new to government and we’re keen to learn. If you’re working in user-centred policy design, we’d love to share our experiences. — Alice Carter

(Picture credit: Pexels)

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