Policy making as a collective inquiry. Draft section of report from research fellowship

Policy Lab prototyping workshop

This is a draft section from the report I’m writing for Policy Lab in which I’ve been embedded for 10 months. The primary audience will be policy makers and others involved in public sector experimentation. The final report will be published in late August/early September.

The workshop: Experiencing policy making as a collective inquiry

In a windowless conference room in the basement of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, about 20 civil servants are sitting on chairs arranged in rows facing a raised stage. On tables to one side are piles of brightly coloured materials such as pens, Play-Doh, straws, cardboard boxes and pipe cleaners. Andrea Siodmok, head of Policy Lab, and I arrive slightly late from running a workshop elsewhere. She checks with our Policy Lab colleagues who are already present if the Powerpoint slides she planned to use are ready on the computer to be projected. They are. This is a two-hour event on prototyping in government organised by Policy Lab as part of Open Policy 2015, a week-long series of practical workshops and talks aimed at policy makers.


Andrea does not go on to the raised stage but instead stays on the same level as the seated participants. She moves in front of the people and starts talking. She apologises for being slightly late, says the workshop will be mostly practical and invites people to ask what they want to find out today about prototyping in government. As she talks and listens she hands out some of the coloured Play-Doh to participants and starts molding some in her own hands. Pretty soon all the people in the room are molding Play-Doh in their hands. The mood is open, relaxed and expectant.


She leads a discussion on prototyping to which people in the room are contributing unselfconsciously and in an open manner. She instructs people to make a particular shape with the Play-Doh – a duck – and people do and then are willing to hold up and share what they’ve done with others. She then says “One of you is going to shout out what you are going to make next” and we hear someone say “monkey”. Andrea says “Ok, 15 seconds” and everyone quickly makes a monkey shape and again shares them. Then someone calls out “Fox”. One man holds up his shape: “It’s part fox, part monkey and I’m very proud of him” and we laugh.


About ten minutes in, it feels as if the workshop has not yet started but participants in the room continue to be attentive. Any skepticism they might feel is not evident in their behaviour. Andrea shares observations on prototyping drawing on the work of UK manufacturer Dyson as well as her early career as a product designer. She says “The purpose of prototyping is to come up with something tangible we can test, share and improve” and talks about how Policy Lab is working with departments to explore how to use this approach at the early stages of policy making, exploring what policy ideas might looks like at the point of delivery and experience. She then instructs, “One last prototype – in 15 seconds. Make a prototype of how to integrate health care and social care.” People laugh at the shift in register from the childlike to the very serious policy challenge, but carry out the request. Andrea then asks people to share their prototypes. “Mine’s a car crash – the incentives are misaligned,” says one woman. Another says, “I’m really trying to join them up.”


Andrea invites people to share reflections on what they think prototyping is. “It’s quick and easy – you can see the result,” says one woman. Another says, “There are lots of levels of abstraction”. Someone else points out that participants’ experiences were impacted by their capabilities with using Play-Doh. Another person reflects, “What it did was force us to do something – often in policy making we sit around trying to come up with the perfect idea.”


Participants in the workshop continue to be very engaged. Andrea moves to the stage and starts showing the Powerpoint slides which are projected on to a large screen. One of the slides includes a screengrab of the text of a recent speech by the Home Secretary in which she refers to prototyping a new service for people reporting crime, one of Policy Lab’s projects[1], possibly the first time a minister has used the term prototyping in public. Andrea shows photographs, many from local government projects, of exploring new policy or public service concepts at a very early stage by mocking up what the experience would be like for end users or citizens.


About an hour in to the workshop, Andrea sets a challenge for participants. This is to work together create a prototype of a new kind of GP surgery based on the principle of “the patient will see you now” rather than the current model of “the doctor will see you now”. Over the next hour participants work together in small teams of about five, producing ideas they share in a two-minute pitch to the rest of the group which is also an opportunity for feedback. To facilitate this, some of us arrange chairs around some large tables so that people can work together around a flat surface.


Most of the participants, all civil servants, are strangers to one another. They come from a range of departments and policy areas but they succeed in quickly self-organising into teams and collaborating to generate and prioritise ideas. They help themselves to the materials and get on with making small models of alternative GP surgeries, responding to the items made available such as cardboard boxes, pens, feathers and pipecleaners. As I move from group to group, I hear them discuss things like patients’ needs, frustrations they themselves have with visiting GP surgeries and concepts from other service contexts.


Everyone seems engrossed in the flow of exploring what a new primary healthcare experience might be and what the infrastructure and resources are required to deliver it. When they come to share their models, some of them use role play to show the new patient experience but they also refer to some of the resources and infrastructure associated with delivering it. One group communicates their concept through a woman performing as if in a TV advert. After each team presents we all have an opportunity to give feedback on the ideas they have presented or query details.


The workshop ends with a brief discussion led by Andrea. She emphasizes that prototyping is an early stage, exploratory and collaborative activity that can be done very early on when concepts are very malleable, as well as later on when concepts are more defined. It’s striking how she continues not to offer a definitive set of proposals as to what prototyping might mean in the context of policy making. Instead, the workshop has involved a practical exploration of the question in relation to a policy challenge. To conclude, she asks, “How many of you are creative?” Nearly everyone puts a hand up. The workshop is over. The Policy Lab team gather up the materials, put the room back to its arrangement of tidy rows of chairs facing the front, and leave.

There are many ways of discussing what was going on in this workshop. In what follows I will draw on the work of Pragmatist philosopher John Dewey to illuminate what made this workshop hang together: how it was that playing around with Play-Doh and pipecleaners became an appropriate and productive way of exploring the issue of prototyping in government and what it offers to conventional ways of thinking about policy making.

Making sense of Policy Lab: Policy making as inquiring

John Dewey made an important contribution to philosophy by focusing on how knowledge is developed in practice, rather than formulating concepts or generating facts without connecting with what goes on in the world. Dewey was one of several Pragmatist philosophers working in the early 20th century who challenged the well-established mind-body dualism in which thinking was maintained as separate from the world. Dewey’s thought was shaped by the idea that humans exist through interacting with their surroundings.

Much of Dewey’s work was in the realm of the theory of knowledge, although he preferred to use the term inquiry. For Dewey and other Pragmatists, what mattered was knowledge being put into use in the world to achieve human ends, rather than more abstract discussions of logic and truth. The point of inquiry is to provide a basis for action. Our knowing is a result of our interacting with our surroundings. Dewey’s work has been extremely influential, including shaping student-centred learning in education and professional development as well as action research and participatory community development.

Dewey’s definition of inquiry can be summarized as the controlled or directed transformation of an indeterminate situation into one that is determinate enough to hang together[2]. Dewey says the process of inquiry involves these steps

  • recognition that there is a problem, which could have a solution
  • working out what the constituents of the problem are
  • making observations about the problem
  • allowing a possible relevant solution to present itself; through so doing, more aspects of the problem become clear
  • exploring the meanings of possible solution to see if they are relevant to the problem at hand
  • finding facts to see if they link up with other facts to produce a coherent whole of problem and solution
  • further developing a new ordering of the facts which suggests a modified idea (or hypothesis), which results in new observations, which results in a new ordering; and
  • continuing this cycle until a new order is judged to be complete. In the course of this “the ideas that represent possible solutions are tested or ‘proved’.”[3]

So for Dewey, in inquiry the problem and a solution emerge together through practical interventions into and observations of the world. Instead of this being a linear process in which first a problem is defined and then solutions are found, in inquiry, the problems and solutions co-evolve together. Dewey’s philosophical argument has since been demonstrated through academic research into how designers approach their work, sometimes called “design thinking”. Researchers have shown that during designing, the problem and the solution emerge together[4].

However Dewey was writing about how knowledge is created in science. To explore how this is relevant to policy making which, like design, is a practical endeavor that involves lots of stakeholders, it’s worth going into a little more detail about how ideas are generated and how they are used.

“Because inquiry is a progressive determination of a problem and its possible solution, ideas differ in grade according to the stage of inquiry reached. At first, save in highly familiar matters, they are vague. They occur at first simply as suggestions; suggestions just spring up, flash upon us, occur to us. They may then become stimuli to direct an overt activity but they have as yet no logical status. Every idea originates as a suggestion, but not every suggestion is an idea. The suggestion becomes an idea when it is examined with reference to its functional fitness; its capacity as a means of resolving the given situation.”[5]

So for Dewey, ideas are not just abstractions; they act in and on the world. And in acting in the world, ideas help re-organize the current understanding of a problem. Through generating ideas and exploring them in relation to the problem, a better understanding emerges of its nature as well as its possible solution.

Dewey’s argument highlights the provisionality of ideas. What matters is how ideas are put into operation to check their fitness.

“Ideas are operational in that they instigate and direct further operations of observation; they are proposals and plans for acting upon existing conditions to bring new facts to light and to organize all the selected facts into a coherent whole.”[6]

To summarise, the key ideas from Dewey’s work relevant to this discussion about Policy Lab and its way of working are as follows.

  • An inquiry is a process of creating knowledge which is always purposeful, rather than concerned with generating abstractions that are not connected to practical situations.
  • The process of inquiry does not start with a problem and then move to solutions. Rather, the problem and the solution co-evolve together.
  • The constituents of an issue are not known in advance; they are discovered through inquiry.
  • Inquiring into a problem by generating ideas helps clarify the nature of the problem.
  • Ideas are always provisional and can be put to work.
  • Exploring ideas helps organize the understanding of the problem and its solution.

Dewey’s work offers a way of thinking about what Andrea was doing in the workshop that helps explain (a) Policy Lab’s experiential approach and (b) what prototyping is.

Staging a collective inquiry. Rather than talking from a position in which she held the knowledge, Andrea constructed the workshop as a collective inquiry. While Andrea is a Senior Civil Servant and has extensive experience of leading strategic design projects, she did not invoke her position in the hierarchy or her expertise to make an argument from authority. There was just one occasion where Andrea did use an argument from authority, when she showed on screen the text of a recent speech by the Home Secretary using the word “prototyping”. Other than this, from the outset of the workshop, she involved participants in exploring together what prototyping in government might be. Instead of telling them what she knew – a kind of one-way knowledge transfer – she enabled people to explore through discussion and practical, embodied interaction with the question of what prototyping in government is or could be. Instead of problem-solving for or with participants, she involved them in inventive “problem making” in the sense of collectively working out what the constituents of the problem might be[7]. Through so doing, she created space for participants to share their lack of knowledge along with their knowledge and ideas. Through the practical activities accompanying the discussion, she invited them to progressively develop their own understanding of the question.

A grounding in practice. Andrea’s design and facilitation of the workshop oriented participants towards action, rather than abstract discussion. For example she set them a challenge in which they could practically explore what prototyping might mean in the context of policy making. By choosing the topic of healthcare, this enabled people to draw on their own lived experience of healthcare. Since most likely everyone in the room had direct relevant experience of implications of the policy question, this enabled the workshop’s inquiry to proceed quickly, as everyone was a ‘user’ of a primary health care service. Further, when setting the challenge, Andrea asked people to make a model of the new GP surgery service and try to communicate what the experience it would offer to a patient. Rather than designing an ideal form such as a healthcare system, positioning themselves as outside of it, participants were asked to describe someone’s future experience of primary healthcare, and to communicate what it would be like inside of it.

Exploring the problem by iteratively exploring ideas and making observations towards coherence. Participants were empowered and supported to explore the question of prototyping in policy making by trying out the techniques Andrea introduced. Unexpected in the context of government, the Play-Doh exercise was extremely simple and accessible to everyone present. Through several rounds of making animal shapes, followed by a policy challenge of health and social care, the activity normalized the idea that it was possible and even worthwhile to give tangible form to your ideas. Then, through collectively making and sharing simple physical models of new kinds of GP services, participants developed a deeper understanding of the nature of healthcare service delivery and experience. By spending an hour making the models, they went through cycles of understanding the problem, making observations (based in some cases on their own experiences), generating ideas, exploring the ideas in relation to the problem, further developing the ideas, making new observations and building towards a (temporary) coherence between the problem and the solution.

Participatory leadership. The way the workshop was delivered resulted in handing over much of the responsibility for its success to participants. Throughout the workshop, participants were constructed as having to find their own answers to the question at the heart of the workshop about prototyping in government, rather than being persuaded (or not) by Andrea’s expert position.

All the way through, participants were invited to share what they wanted to learn, what they believed and what they knew. Andrea offered many opportunities for them to shape the activities, for example, calling out what animal to make next with Play-Doh, deciding which challenge they should work on together, or inviting them to move to another group if they wanted to.

Andrea’s use of humour and her self-deprecating stance further emphasized her rejection of holding an expert position. This opened up the question for participants about their degree of participation in the workshop.

Experiencing policy making. The design and facilitation of the workshop invited people to manipulate and organize material things – the Play-Doh, the cardboard boxes, the feathers. Andrea and the rest of us in the Policy Lab team intervened to reorganize the room to enable people to work together at tables, rather than being bounded by the conventional format of the room as we found it with rows of chairs facing a stage. Rather than operating in the domain of manipulating symbols, with which civil servants are very comfortable, the workshop foregrounded the material, the spatial and experiential. This decentred the civil servants from their own expertise. It also invited people to reflect on their own experiences as civil servants – the things they take for granted in the material and spatial organisation of their work and how it enables or inhibits how they approach problem finding and exploration in their day to day routines.

The next section will go on to explore what this approach offers to policy makers.


Note – the references are not yet checked or complete

[1] https://openpolicy.blog.gov.uk/2015/02/03/prototyping-an-online-crime-reporting-service-a-policy-lab-success-story/

[2] Dewey, J. Logic: The Theory of Inquiry. pp 104-105

[3] Dewey p 113-114

[4] Dorst and Cross 2001

[5] Dewey p 110

[6] Dewey pp 112-113

[7] In sociological research exploring the public understanding of science, Mike Michael and others have developed the concept of “inventive problem making” to describe bringing together distinct perspectives on an issue in material and discursive form. See Michael, M. (2012). “What Are We Busy Doing?” Engaging the. Idiot.” Science, Technology & Human Values 37, no. 5 (2012): 528-54.

Published by

Lucy Kimbell

Professor of Contemporary Design Practices and Director, Innovation Insights Hub, 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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