Why governance will need design-thinking in a post-Covid world

Design-thinking-based governance, which borrows from data-driven inputs and creates outcome-oriented solutions, could be the future in a technology-driven world.

 |  5-minute read |   22-05-2020
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The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the criticality to adapt, innovate and ideate on the spur of the moment in response to an unprecedented crisis. Across the world, real-time exchange of ideas and out-of-the-box thinking is paying dividends in spades. In India, integrating citizens' experiences, data analytics, district-level administration and subject expertise has been the overwhelming theme in governance for the last two months.

Soon, design thinking-based governance, which borrows from data-driven inputs and creates outcome-oriented solutions, adaptable to unique circumstances and challenges, could be the future in a technology-driven world.

Challenge of the status quo

Public policy has to develop a mechanism to understand why outcomes aren’t always indicative of the efforts and schemes that are undertaken by the government. This requires a redesigned framework in governance. The challenges that governments are called upon to tackle today are increasingly complex and multifaceted, demanding flexibility over rigidity. Governments need to nimbly react to unexpected developments while sticking to set priorities and objectives.

Next, policy designers need to focus on citizens’ demands for greater personalisation of services. While big data is important, in a country as diverse as India, ‘thick data’ is equally significant. Thick data is qualitative information that provides insights into the everyday lives of citizens. It goes beyond big data to explain citizens’ preferences and behaviour trends. Further, governance should work at the intersection of multi-disciplinary and multi-actor knowledge. Solutions are less likely to be found in any one silo.

For this, engaging cross-sectoral subject-matter expertise is a must. Finally, complex ever-changing environments impose recalibration, adjustments and revisions that can be achieved only through iterative, collective processes.

In his papers, American development economist Lant Pritchett has highlighted how government programmes and schemes need to be embedded in local contexts for them to have a high chance of achieving desired outcomes. Building upon that, it is essential to facilitate ‘design of programmes’, which by default take into context local knowledge, or what James Scott calls ‘metis’. In India, allowing local governments to experiment for achieving desired outcomes would be ideal to facilitate these measures.

Fundamentals of design-thinking

The building of this new framework requires a design-thinking-driven, citizen-centred approach. To build structures for solutions that are progressively refined, through an iterative process of providing a voice to citizens and engaging them in shaping experiments for solutions at the local level.

main_panchayat_reute_052220025654.jpgIn India, allowing local governments to experiment for achieving desired outcomes would be ideal to facilitate the desired measures. (Representative photo of Panchayat: Reuters)

Design-thinking exists in three phases — inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration ensures a better understanding of people by incorporating and observing their daily-life issues. Understanding social norms, cultural ideas, and economic interests to better conceptualise challenges and design solution modules in governance. Ideation then ensures aggregation of people’s voices, engaging subject expertise, generating ideas and refining proposed solutions. Implementation works to bring solution sets to life and creates an opportunity to iterate on solutions to maximise citizen’s Ease of Living. Facilitating this at the ground level through technology-aided interaction, assimilation, dissemination, and eventually through design-thinking module discussion, could be the future of effective governance.

Policy Labs

World over, policy labs rooted in design-thinking are disrupting countries’ approach to effective governance. Among others, Denmark initiated MindLab, Singapore created the Human Experience Lab, the United Kingdom has utilised a Cabinet Office Policy Lab and the United States’ Office of Personnel Management has an Innovation Lab structured to initiate and deliberate on design-thinking solutions for various challenges in their respective countries.

Challenges relevant to the Indian context have been effectively addressed through these policy labs. Denmark was facing a challenge where 60 per cent of elderly people in assisted living facilities had poor nutrition and 20 per cent were malnourished, leading to a myriad of health and economic issues despite no shortfall in resources or service delivery. Through design-thinking, the affected municipality of Holstebro concluded that the challenge was not the availability of food, but the disinterest and reduced consumption due to an uninventive and repetitive routine menu of food. A simple tweak led to hiring a chef who skilled the kitchen staff on innovative and nutritious food choices. This, in turn, led to an immediate upswing in food uptake, raising nutrition indicators. The model, titled ‘the Good Kitchen’, has been showcased in more than 30 countries around the world.

In New Zealand, design-thinking has been incorporated into governance through various programmes. The ‘Results Project’ and ‘Policy Project’ have been undertaken to resolve several issues through citizen participation. A report in 2017 estimated that design-thinkers added 4.2 per cent to the nation’s economy and created a staggering one out of every 20 jobs. In the UK, gov.uk as a single-point interface for all government services was built using design thinking approaches, keeping citizens at the centre of programme design.

The Indian Context

Design-thinking-based policy labs for India could be extremely effective if introduced at the district level. During India’s widely appreciated pandemic response, district-level governance has been at the forefront, tackling various challenges. District magistrates have introduced innovative ways to tackle challenges and have had to pivot regularly. In the future, a focused virtual engagement of relevant stakeholders, including district officials, experts, and citizen representatives, could be facilitated to take a deep dive into resolving people’s challenges at the ground level. It would accelerate the cycle of collecting evidence, diagnosing, brainstorming, designing, and experimenting with programmes and schemes. It would also have the potential to address two objectives often considered mutually exclusive — cutting state spending and improving the experience of citizens.

The Prime Minister in his address on May 12 emphasised on a ‘technology-driven system’. Design-thinking embedded into governance and facilitated by tech-based policy labs, resolving challenges on the ground, could be the transformative boost that local governance needs right now. The pandemic has shown us how precise and informed decision-making at the grassroots level is a game-changer. Imagine then the impact of broad-basing this across our governance modules, with the focus on enhancing citizen experience.

Also Read | NITI Aayog 2.0: The think tank that facilitates governance


Desh Gaurav Sekhri and Satwik Mishra

Desh Gaurav Sekhri is Officer on Special Duty at NITI Aayog. Satwik Mishra is a young professional at NITI Aayog

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