Design Thinking in Public Policy; Next Interpretation of Democracy?

By Abu Okari
iHub UXlab
  Published 02 Oct 2015
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We are speeding down Waiyaki Way, headed towards Westlands. It is early afternoon and we are coming back from Nakuru, from a work assignment . We are five in the car, my three colleagues the driver of the hired car, and I.Suddenly, he dramatically mouths the word fifty, and clicks.We do not pay much attention to the figure he mentions, but we would in a bit. In a minute or two, the car slows down to a crawling pace. That is when it hits us he had been cussing about a speed limit, 50KM/h. By the time we get to the Safaricom Centre, we are visibly exasperated, and almost everybody is wondering who came up with this directive.

“Some government functionary somewhere did” one of us says. “Some government person somewhere always does.” She adds.

We wonder whether this government functionary has ever tried driving on that stretch at that speed. Probably not at that speed, no police officer could stop a fancy car with government plates for overspeeding. That is tantamount to asking to be fired.

Driving at less than 50km/h when you can comfortably do more without putting yourself or other motorists in harm's way is literally painful, to say the least. You cannot break the limit, a police officer could be lurking somewhere in an unmarked car, waiting for you to do the natural thing of responding to that empty space, and you will pay an unreasonable figure for that response.

In May this year, a government entity called the Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Authority(AFFA) proposed regulations to guide the implementation of the Crops Act of 2013. Part of these regulations was moving mama mbogas from their kiosks, that are within estates, to designated market areas. Expectedly, this elicited an uproar, least of all online.

I was part of the uproar. I couldn’t imagine my life without the mama mbogas near my house. You see, there are things I get from people who run the kadogo academy, I buy my newspaper, when I have to, from the guys on the roadside, I buy my groceries from the lady at my estate. I won’t get these things from, let’s say a supermarket. I believe the supermarket does not need my little monies for these things as the other two do. I could be wrong, but I would be gladly so.

I never go out of my way to buy these groceries, I buy them on my way home, right by the road that I use daily. I don’t think I would go out of my way to seek mama mbogas if their proposed locations are far from my home.

I am sure this experience is not personal. I saw similar reactions to the announcement.

I feel these experiences should have been taken into consideration when these two decisions, among other policy decisions, were being made. Suffice to say that the Director General of AFFA later clarified that the new direction did not apply to all mama mbogas in a blanket manner, I wonder how many such decisions have been passed without coming to the attention of the larger public.

This is an effect of the top-down system of making and implementing decisions. In most cases, it does not work as anticipated. Could be because they could not take off, or people could not bring themselves to following the new directive because it did not mean much to them, in spite of the consequences of not doing so.

The best way to move past this top-down method and reduce the many challenges in the implementation phase could be considering adopting and incorporating design thinking into policy making.

In User Centred design, when coming up with something, we say we are designing it; not building it, not developing it, but designing it. For the uninitiated, design in this case refers to a formalized thinking process that begins with the definition of the problem, researching on it, which is human based (because design thinking process is user centred), analysing the research findings into new insights and connecting the new insights to come up with a solution to the problem.

If introduced to government, this will not be something new per se. Government dabbles in stakeholder consultation when coming up with new policies. Design thinking would build on that, only that it will be more involving and the contributions put forth will form the final outcome of the sessions as opposed to having a few people in government deciding what to include and what to leave out.

Since many policy programmes are put together by people from different backgrounds, having them thinking through a problem together will build on their different expertise to come up with solutions that incorporate all the different skills instead of one that amplifies the different skill sets.

On top of that, the first few solutions out of a design thinking process are regarded as prototypes, which can be improved upon during implementation. This allows those in charge to implement changes without bruising any egos as iterations are part of the design thinking process. Everybody is consulted, everybody contributes, everybody clearly sees why their thoughts did not work, or why they did. This is definitely a new interpretation of democracy.

There is a common argument that Kenya has no policy development problem, it has a policy implementation problem. Since the process of design thinking includes the implementation phase, this will be an innovative way to address this issue.

I first thought of this concept back in March. Sometime in May, I came across this group in Canada that was exploring ways of developing CSR solutions on a design and innovation level. Closer home, NGOs, which used to be masters of top-down solutions which in most cases never achieved what they were intended to are now regularly talking about developing programmes that actually address the real problem. That involves incorporating the members of the communities in which they are trying to identify the problem in the problem definition and solution design process. The September issue of the Harvard Business Review has a cover article arguing the case for design thinking in the corporate world. These different facets of public/private enterprise are already onto this design thinking school of thought. This could be a pointer that it could work in government.

Areas that do not apply to a large number of people could start. Maybe this could help in addressing the transport problem in Nairobi, and other cities. Maybe the county governments could adopt this for some of their endeavours. They are young, they are experimenting. A number of entities are already exploring how design thinking could be co-opted into the public policy making process. A public policy outfit called the Public Policy Labs has actually been running this in some projects for Public Service entities in New York city. Stanford university has a course on the same. Discussions are moving slowly towards this direction. It could be worth the risk.


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