Open policy making in action: Empowering divorcing couples and separating families to create sustainable solutions

Family mediation workshop hosted by Impact Hub Westminster

Set up in April 2014, the Cabinet Office Policy Lab brings new tools and techniques, new insights and practical experimentation to policy-making. Embedded as a researcher in the Lab, my role is to help with evaluating Lab’s impact on policy making. This post summarises one of Lab’s demonstrator projects from its first year. 

Policy Lab’s second demonstrator project has over the past three months resulted in learning about how policy professionals can work in a more open, user-centred way to engage with others and generate novel solutions to policy issues. (For a quick overview of Policy Lab, see this slide share.) Working in partnership with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) on a project concerned with family mediation during divorce and separation, Lab has new findings about the opportunities, implications and practical issues associated with bringing this approach into policy-making. This post captures some of what was learned.


Family mediation visioning workshop


Bringing citizens and users into policy-making

First, some background. Having a focus on end users of public services and the outcomes of policy-making within people’s day-to-day lives is an increasingly visible agenda in the UK and internationally. Lab is one of a number of UK initiatives that brings citizen-centred perspectives to central government. The Government Digital Service champions designing digital government services by starting with user needs. The Behavioural Insights Team uses knowledge from the social sciences to improve the effectiveness of public services based on understanding how individuals make decisions in practice and how they are likely to respond to options.

Having a focus on users is not the only area in which Policy Lab is experimenting, but it is one area it is targeting to support the policy profession to develop and make use of this capability. As the UK civil service moves towards open policy making by default, Policy Lab uses user-centred design methods such as design ethnography, co-design and early service prototyping to help civil servants bring citizen and user perspectives into the early stages of designing policy. As a result, this Lab demonstrator placed a strong emphasis from the outset on understanding and making use of the experiences of people going through separation and divorce.

Mediation service user persona based on interview












The policy context around divorce and separating families

Second, a brief summary of the issue that Lab demonstrator addressed: family disputes during divorce and separation. These are not necessarily matters requiring extensive engagement with court or public services. Much of the MOJ’s own data relates to its services such as how many cases come to court and activities that it funds, rather than the bigger picture of people’s journeys towards dispute resolution via mediation or court. For example, 47% of divorcing couples do not seek any legal advice and only 10% of couples use alternative dispute resolution. Public funding has been available for mediation since the late 1990s. Since the early 2000s both people in the dispute have been funded to attend a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM), if one person was eligible for Legal Aid.

Until April 2013, there were three routes into mediation:

(i) voluntary referrals to a Mediation Information and Assessment Meeting (MIAM)

(ii) as a requirement of obtaining Legal Aid for legal representation, and

(iii) as a result of compliance with the pre-application protocol (April 2011) which placed an ‘expectation’ on couples to consider mediation before making a court application.

In April 2013, the implementation of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) removed the availability of Legal Aid funding for people to access legal advice and representation by a solicitor when they get divorced or when families have disputes over money and/or children. It was expected that mediation volumes would increase following these changes but, possibly due to the removal of the main referral route to mediation (via a Legal Aid lawyer), there were actually 17,000 fewer MIAMs and 5,000 fewer mediation starts in 2013/14 compared to 2012/13. A further development was that there were 30% more family cases (18,500 cases) in 2013/14 (post-LASPO) where neither party had representation, compared with 2012/13 (pre-LASPO). In the first quarter of 2014, 80% of all new family court cases had at least one unrepresented party. There is concern that people representing themselves in court delays proceedings. It can make the experience more stressful for families and may reduce equal access to justice.

Two recent policy responses tried to address these concerns. Firstly, it became mandatory in April 2014 for separating couples to have a mediation information and assessment meeting (MIAM) before going to court to settle disputes. Then in November 2014, funding became available to pay for both parties at this first meeting if the one of them is eligible for Legal Aid.


Family mediation workshop - future vision


Using an open policy making approach 

Within this context, the MOJ family mediation team had two goals for the Lab demonstrator. They wanted to understand the experiences of people going through separation and divorce, and they wanted to use these insights to explore how family mediation services could be redesigned to better meet people’s needs.

For Policy Lab, this demonstrator was an opportunity to try out three things: commissioning ethnographic research and using it to shape policy making; engaging a broad network of stakeholders in creating policy; and accessing expertise from a specialist agency, the Innovation Unit, experienced in collaboratively developing innovative solutions in policy contexts.

A project team including the MOJ, Policy Lab and Innovation Unit staff worked together closely over the 12 weeks of the project. The key activities included:

  • Around 30 interviews, site visits and mystery shopping with people directly involved in family mediation, separation, divorce, court and related public services, complemented by desk research
  • In depth ethnographic interviews with six mediators and six people using or thinking of using mediation services
  • Sense-making to analyse the qualitative data leading to reframing the issue away from going to mediation to avoid court to crafting new family arrangements in a positive way
  • A workshop with issue experts to sense-check the emerging findings and approach
  • Articulation of an emerging vision for 2020 based on making mediation the social norm for family disputes and divorce, significantly reducing the number of people going to court, including via self-representation, supported by a high quality, valued mediation sector with better measurement of the outcomes, process and quality of mediation services when funded publicly
  • A collaborative workshop held in early December with 33 mediators, policy-makers, judges and other stakeholders. Together they explored the experiences of people getting separated or divorced captured in six detailed personas and user journeys based on the Innovation Unit’s research. Grounded in these perspectives and the problems, opportunities and insights they generated, participants then defined principles they thought would lead to better individual, family and policy outcomes. They then articulated visions for helping people reach agreement about family disputes. Participants selected three visions to take forward and then sketched roadmaps to work towards prototyping and piloting aspects of these visions.

The next steps of this project are for the MOJ family mediation team to work with Policy Lab and the Innovation Unit to make sense of the large volume of insights, problems and opportunities generated in the workshop, as well as other research findings. This will require prioritising which ideas to take forward via prototyping to explore and test aspects of the future visions in more depth. The MOJ will also host a follow-on workshop to engage with stakeholders within the family mediation sector to advance a collective discussion about ways forward – continuing the department’s move towards towards a more open, engaged way of making policy.

Family mediation workshop - roadmapping system change


What Lab learned from this demonstrator

The main findings from the Lab’s perspective are in three areas.

Clarifying what user perspectives bring to policy-makingOpen policy making recognises the importance of bringing citizen and user perspectives into researching and analysing an issue. But what are the best ways to engage with and use qualitative evidence such as analysis from ethnographic interviews? And what effect can it have?

  • In this project, the focus on the lived experiences of families going through divorce or separation was the thread that held the project together. The way the Innovation Unit crafted the project, in collaboration with Policy Lab and the MOJ, centred the project around people’s experiences of divorce and separation, not just their interactions with specialists such as mediators, lawyers and the legal system.
  • Finding out what recent policy changes meant for families and for the professionals they worked with, grounded policy in practice. The research into the current state of affairs explored what it was like for people now, and the creative activities in the workshop proposed what it could be like for people in the future.
  • Semi-structured ethnographically informed interviews generated unexpected insights. For example, researchers discovered that some people going through separation and divorce lacked confidence in their ability to make decisions about their futures. They also concluded that people’s satisfaction with the mediation process rested on setting realistic expectations for mediation based on likely outcomes of mediation. This has implications for how mediation services are designed and communicated to the market and to others in the sector, training and assessment for mediators, and how the outcomes of publicly-funded mediation are evaluated. Insights such as these may not have emerged from using other research methods such as surveys.
  • Using person-centred techniques in the workshop made participants accountable to the users – even if they were not in the room. The collaborative workshop began with participants sitting in mixed teams. Each table focused for half an hour on one of the personas and his or her journey through separation and mediation. This was achieved by reading, interpreting and discussing the visual and written research materials. From then on, participants regularly referred to their table’s persona throughout the rest of the workshop. Through so doing, individuals were brought into view within the policy discussion by participants creating a collective account of their experiences of separation or divorce. Further, participants repeatedly raised questions about what a proposed new solution might be like for these personas. It was as if these participants were now accountable to these individuals.

Reconstituting the issue of family mediation. Another result of this project was to shift from seeing policy-making as primarily as the province of the MOJ towards a collective activity in which many actors and different kinds of expertise needed to be involved. The project constituted policy-making as a complex configuration of socio-cultural, organisational and technological actors, processes, data and resources – more of a living system than a mechanical object with inputs, outputs and policy “levers”.

  • Careful preparation about who should be involved in the research and invited and encouraged to attend the workshop, and how to best use participants’ knowledge and expertise, highlighted how open policy making is partly an activity of curating and staging collective conversations. As the MOJ family mediation policy lead Kate Shiner put it, the workshop created a different tone for the conversation between the department and stakeholders in the sector.
  • During the workshop, the Innovation Unit’s activity of asking participants to create roadmaps towards system change to achieve their visions presented change-making as a shared responsibility that a wide range of actors, including but not limited to participants in the workshop, could contribute to and have responsibility for.
  • The design of the collaborative workshop created new interpersonal and organisational relationships between actors in the sector. Through co-creating accounts of a persona’s story, defining principles, articulating visions and sketching out roadmaps participants became temporary teams bound together through their creative and analytical work.

Starting and ending with people’s lives, not government-funded or delivered services, as the driver to innovate. Finally, this Lab project looked broadly at people’s lives, not just as users of mediation or court services. The ethnographic research focused on people’s relationship breakdown stories. This starting point allowed the researchers to discover a range of actors, activities and identities involved including family, friends, colleagues; professionals such as solicitors and mediators; other public services (such as the police, in one person’s story or a GP, in another); as well as material and digital artefacts such as bank statements, and resources such as Wikivorce or Netmums where families and professionals share knowledge and opinions. Taking people’s lives, not services, as the starting point led to three findings. All three highlight how this approach to policy making is oriented towards innovation rather than service improvement, where innovation is understood as reconfiguring societal and public resources to achieve outcomes for the actors involved.

  • This approach recognized that mediation and digital services are elements in the mix of things that people who are separating or getting divorced access and use. The project demonstrated that users’ needs at particular points in time exist within journeys towards new family arrangements. Focusing on people’s needs can result in improvements to services during specific stages of the separation process, but may not significantly reshape the journey overall. Instead, the person-centred approach looks at the whole system within which digital or face-to-face services exist, opening up the possibility of combining resources and activities in new ways.
  • The six visions for possible solutions created in the workshop to help support people craft new family arrangements proposed interconnecting elements of a new system such as: a skilled, accredited, trusted and valued mediation profession; responsive, child-centred, accessible and cost-effective services that enable people to find and engage the support they need including mediation, legal advice and other specialist services; socio-cultural shifts towards valuing mediation rather than confrontation; and increased readiness for the work involved in mediation during separation and divorce.
  • Starting with people’s lives, rather than existing services or institutions, highlighted the diversity of resources available to people going through a major life transition such as separation or divorce. One of the projects captured in a horizon scan shared at the workshop suggested how people getting separated or divorced might benefit from connecting with others going through it, similar to platforms in other policy arenas such as Patients Like Me. This approach recognises that people going through such transitions develop expertise and grow in confidence as they craft new arrangements. This informal expertise is a societal resource that can be accessed and shared. One possibility is to design and deliver services through which people can support and learn from one another, accessing expert professional help from mediators and solicitors when they need it.


To conclude, this demonstrator helped Policy Lab experiment with new tools and techniques in relation to one complex policy issue.

It demonstrated how open policy making takes practical steps to broaden the range of actors involved in researching and analysing an issue. It also engaged people directly in coming up with principles and visions shaping new policy and service solutions.

This changed the conversations with stakeholders in the sector, who were rendered as collaborators in a collective innovation process.

It showed how using ethnographic analysis resulted in new insights, which reframed the policy issue from the perspective of people’s experiences. These insights highlighted the contexts shaping their needs and attitudes towards specialist services such as mediation and legal advice and their behaviours during divorce and separation.

Finally, this project generated principles and visions for supporting people going through separation and divorce. These underpin the next steps of the project, to prototype services and system changes through which people can craft new family arrangements.

Published by

Lucy Kimbell

Professor of Contemporary Design Practices, University of the Arts London. Associate fellow, Said Business School, University of Oxford. Former AHRC research fellow, Policy Lab, Cabinet Office. Author of Service Innovation Handbook. @lixindex

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