Phases of the research: Phase 1 – Infrastructuring

Part 2 of some retrospective sensemaking of my research fellowship within the Policy Lab team in the Cabinet Office.

Phase 1 Infrastructuring: January – early May 2015

Working with Hannah Rutter from Policy Lab to develop a framework to make sense of Lab
Working with Hannah Rutter from Policy Lab to develop a framework to make sense of Lab


With my newly-gained, temporary insider status and confidence – enabled by the security pass which allowed me into some government buildings without an escort and by my emerging understanding of the civil service’s policy making environment, the first few months of 2015 gave me deep access to new developments in Policy Lab’s world. As well as continuing to deliver many one-hour or longer taster workshops to departmental policy officials, Policy Lab took shape through its demonstrator projects lasting over several months and ongoing discussions about its future in the context of a countdown to the general election.

One of Lab’s five demonstrator projects, with the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and Department of Health (DH) on health outcomes, kicked off in late January after two months of what Pelle Ehn calls “infrastructuring”[1] – the briefings, proposals, meetings, emails, commitments and contracting that construct a project. In previous projects I had been more of an observer. In this project I took a more active role at the beginning, for example helping Lab’s project lead Cat Drew and the rest of the team design, facilitate and make sense of the policy “sprint” workshop. Unlike the earlier projects in which Lab and the government department subcontracted chunks of the project to specialists in ethnographic research and design, in the health outcomes project Policy Lab directly brought together and mediated between experts. They worked in close collaboration with one another and with staff from the two departments including policy makers, analysts and some of their advisers and other stakeholders. The two-and-a-half day sprint staged the project from the outset as a collective inquiry by articulating and iterating a goal, defining research questions and approaches, and building a shared, although provisional understanding of the issue.

Other demonstrator projects with HM Revenue and Customers (HMRC) on National Insurance numbers and young people, and with the Department for Education (DfE) on childcare, moved forward with combinations of ethnographically-informed research and analysis, design and prototyping. I participated in workshops in which Policy Lab and the wider project-specific teams shared research insights, supported collaborative design by civil servants and other stakeholders. I also participated in review meetings and sometimes helped edit or produce documents at key points in a project lifecycle. In one project I took a direct role as the lead for Policy Lab, on a consultancy basis. This project was for the small team serving the civil service’s Heads of Policy Profession Board with the goal of exploring and developing proposals for assessing and accrediting the capabilities of people working in the policy profession. I’ll discuss the ethical, political, and methodological implications of doing this alongside my fellowship in a separate post.

Projects that were more or less completed such as with the Home Office on digital policing, and the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) on family mediation, were still part of Policy Lab’s world, surfacing in team discussions about next steps and demonstrating Lab’s impact. The challenge for each was how to take forward what the Policy Lab project had produced but without ownership – as the policy areas lived in departments, not in the Cabinet Office – and without much resource in terms of time or money, nor yet much visible commitment from senior leaders in the civil service or ministers.

I became more aware of the importance of formal governance structures and processes in this civil service world. Crafting Policy Lab’s demonstrator projects involves setting up “boards” chaired by Paul Maltby, the director of the Government Innovation Group in which Policy Lab is embedded. These involve the Policy Lab lead and the policy officials leading the policy area but, crucially, involve senior civil servants from the departments involved. Punctuating the project journey, these boards invite senior people to review Policy Lab’s work including the research insights and emerging concepts and decide how to move forward and making commitments to one another, often across departmental boundaries.

In early February – in a very short space of time – the Open Policy Making team and Policy Lab organised 19 events for over 500 people with the title Open Policy 2015. Many of these were practical workshops and taster sessions for civil servants to try out tools and techniques including user research, behavioural insights, agile approaches such as hackdays, and working with stakeholders. While these approaches are not new to some policy teams, these were opportunities for participants to hear an experienced civil servant or external speaker share experiences of using a particular approach and then try aspects of it out. I attended some events such as Policy Lab’s prototyping workshop and also organised one for Policy Lab, which was discursive rather than practical, on ethnography in policy making.
As it got closer to the first anniversary of Policy Lab being set up – initially for one year in April 2014 – discussions among the team and with senior stakeholders focused on making sense of what Lab had been doing, and demonstrating its impact. This went in parallel with constructing future projects with departments and articulating options for senior civil servants to consider about its purpose, resourcing, and expected outcomes. Various ways of framing Policy Lab were discussed, with a recurring themes of experimentation, engagement and evidence and what it takes to make a project “land”.

My research at this time was guided still by Bent Flyvberg’s Making Social Science Matter, as well as by Jesper Christiansen’s PhD thesis entitled The Irrealities of Pubic Innovation based on his research/work at MindLab. Researcher Ben Williamson’s blog, the anthrodesign mailing list and the twitter hashtag #psilabs were also useful. I continued taking lots of notes and photos, doing some interviews, but decided against using video to gather data.

The UK general election date of May 7 marked an end point to this phase of the research. Owing to the relationship between policy makers and ministers, as well as to the particular uncertainty around who might win that election, the months leading up to the election had a particular intensity and urgency. Civil servants talked about the pressure of getting things done before “Purdah”, the name given to the period of time after Parliament is dissolved and before a new government is formed, when the civil service is not supposed to favour any political party. Although the civil servants in Policy Lab did not work directly with ministers at that point, this urgency to get things done shaped the working culture and expectations about the timeframes within which some of its projects with departments had to produce results.

As the civil service entered Purdah, it seemed ironic that parts of the civil service advocating and practicing open government decided not to have any online digital engagement during this time – even though some government departments did. For example the OPM team and Policy Lab were advised not to tweet or blog. With an inside/outside role, I changed some of my own online behaviours during this time too.

This phase of my research was still about building, connecting and expanding rather than making sense. Writing up a couple of blog posts for the OPM blog (the links are above) and doing a couple of keynotes and talks to early career researchers forced me to try to locate and digest the research to date. I found it very hard. In my application for the fellowship I had said I would co-design an evaluation framework for Policy Lab and made various efforts to do so, working closely with the team of Andrea Siodmok, Beatrice Andrews, Hannah Rutter, Cat Drew and Cabinet Office intern (and doctor) Lisa Graham. But I was still in the mess of being-in-the-work, trying to understand what Policy Lab was doing in its various emergent forms in a context of massive uncertainty and ambiguity. It began to get clearer – to me at least – that Policy Lab and its publics might benefit from an account of what it was doing – the difference it made to policy making – which needed to precede any framework.

[1] Ehn P (2008) Participation in design things. In: PDC ’08: Proceedings of the tenth conference on participatory design, Bloomington, Indiana, 30 September–4 October 2008. New York: ACM Press, pp. 92–101.

Phases of the research: Phase 0 – Discovery

This blog is a public-facing vehicle for findings from my one-year, three-day a week AHRC research fellowship based in Policy Lab, a small team based within the Cabinet Office working with government departments. What I’ve discovered is that it was incredibly hard for me to make sense of this research while I am in the middle of it – at least in ways I want to share openly via a blog.

Now, as I write up some of my findings in various formats for sharing inside Policy Lab and within the policy profession, as well as with others outside government with an interest in design and policy experimentation, I am ready to do some blogging. But it’s the retrospective sense-making kind – a sort of short-form research lite – rather than near real-time reflections from the field which I had wanted to do. This is the first in a series of posts to chart what I now see as the main phases of the research.

Phase 0 – Discovery – September to December 2014

At the point of starting the fellowship I very little knowledge of policy making or how government works. Whitehall and Westminster were parts of London I rarely set foot in. I was more likely to see them on the news that go there. I already knew some of the Policy Lab team – Andrea Siodmok, who leads it, for example, has been involved with strategic design and policy issues for over a decade through her work at the Design Council and the DOTT Cornwall project and our paths had crossed several times. I had briefly met Beatrice Andrews of Policy Lab and Maria Nyberg of the Open Policy Making team (OPM) through my research on Mapping Social Design for the AHRC.

When I started, Policy Lab had been set up in April 2014 and was now mid way through its first demonstrator project with the Home Office on crime reporting. It existed in the form of a very small resource – some headcount (less than 3 people full-time), some budget, some desks to sit at – and what seemed like a constant stream of activities – workshops, discussions, meetings, writing up workshops, planning and drawing. Much of the discussion was about what Policy Lab could or should be and activities to bring it into being by trying things out. With blog posts on the Open Policy blog and a twitter feed it was already visible to the world outside government, while inside it was just as much in formation in relation to Cabinet Office and departmental priorities. The election in May 2015 was already on people’s minds.

Much of my participant observation consisted of turning up in the morning, and following the team around to their various workshops and meetings. In particular I sat in on several “Lab Lights”, short taster sessions during which Policy Lab would work with policy makers from a government department enabling them to try out using design methods on their challenges. Mostly I listened and asked some questions as I tried to understand what was going on. I wrote lots of notes (by hand) and tentatively took some photos (see the note on ethics below). I did some interviews which I sometimes recorded by audio. I did a few literature searches and nosed around the web.

The practicalities of getting inside the building where Policy Lab is based hampered my research. Policy Lab is part of the Government Innovation Group (GIG) team in the Cabinet Office, based in the HM Treasury building at 1 Horseguards Road. As a visitor to the building your host has to come down and escort you through the barriers and stay with you throughout your visit, which does not suit day-long visits, several days a week, where you might want to make tea, go for lunch, pop out of the building, or go to the toilet.

Then in mid-December, my security clearance came through and I finally got given a security pass giving me access to many government buildings. Around the same time the team switched to using a calendar system that meant I could see their diaries (even as I write this I am wondering how open to be about locations and technology providers, and erring on the side of caution). This meant I could see what was planned each day – I didn’t have to ask when I arrived what was happening and where and if I could come along. I was also given access to the digital drive where Policy Lab’s documents were stored which I could now roam around, much as I could now roam around the building unescorted. We talked about whether I should get a email address too to have access to the email discussions where much of their work happened. But to get this I’d have to get a secure laptop and use it and I was not keen.

Working out what research ethics meant in this context too was a challenge. The Policy Lab team and the slightly larger OPM team who we sit next to and work closely with knew who I was and what I was doing. At meetings with others I made sure I that I introduced myself as a researcher and explained that I was taking notes and might be using them. I always emphasised that I would not attribute anything to anyone named without asking them which seemed to satisfy them, although even if I was not naming them or making them recognisable I was still researching them. Sometimes I took photos of workshops as did other members of the Policy Lab team and we said we might use these images publicly for Policy Lab – but where did Policy Lab end and my research begin? For my few formal interviews I brought a consent form for the participant to sign. But informed consent was tricky to work out for a long-term engagement when I was working consistently with some people, meeting many others each week, and had access to privileged information.

The blurred lines between research and my own strategic design practice emerged early on too. For example I helped facilitate one of the eight concurrent ideas days organised by Policy Lab for Northern Futures. For this I was paid as a facilitator on the same basis as the other facilitators. But unlike most of them as a researcher I was involved in helping shape and make sense of the ideas days and what learning they offered to Policy Lab and the Cabinet Office. My growing access to this world was had limits, of course. One of the people we worked closely with did not give me access to the summary of that event which was a report that was going to be seem by a minister. A line emerged – things that were for ministers were not things I could see.

A brief trip to Washington DC for a data science and humanities workshop, to New York to visit GovLab, the Parsons DESIS Lab and Public Policy Lab, and another short trip with some of the Policy Lab and OPM team to MindLab in Denmark, gave me access to other practitioner and practice-academic hybrids also experimenting with design and policy. By the Christmas break I had a sense of what Policy Lab was trying to do, I knew something of the culture of the civil service and the emerging “policy profession” and the OPM agenda. I was enjoying being part of this all-women (at that point) team. And I was excited by the idea that academic research could help shape organisational practice in the field.

My guides at this point were Dan Neyland’s Organisational Ethnography, Bent Flyvberg’s Making Social Science Matter and Geertz’s The Interpretation of Cultures. Re-reading these while visiting a central government department on regular basis helped me acknowledge the essential ambiguity inherent in participant observation. Just as Policy Lab was performing itself into being as a resource for the policy profession, so I too was performing myself into being as a practice-oriented researcher.

AHRC-ESRC Design Research Fellowship at the UK Cabinet Office PolicyLab

Policy Lab Innovation Unit MOJ workshop

At the beginning of September I began a one-year research fellowship in the UK Cabinet Office’s PolicyLab, created by an open call by the AHRC and ESRC.

The Policy Lab was set up in April 2014 by the Open Policy Making team of the Cabinet Office, part of the UK Civil Service. It aims to experiment with bringing creative problem-solving, design thinking and user centred design approaches to policy-making in central government by undertaking projects with the 17 government departments funding the lab. Led by experienced designer Dr Andrea Siodmok, this is a one-year experimental pilot that aims to bring creative approaches to the early stages of generating policy, by focussing on people’s experiences, using data analytics, digital tools and prototyping to engage a more diverse group of people in policy-making.

The Policy Lab builds on similar activities elsewhere, notably in Denmark, which set up a cross-ministerial innovation unit MindLab over a decade ago, as well as Nesta’s Public Innovation Lab, France’s 27e Region, and The Australian Centre for Social Innovation. It sits alongside other related Cabinet Office initiatives such as the Behavioural Insights Team and the Government Digital Service.

Most of the existing literature on these initiatives currently comes from reports, conferences and blog posts. See for example the recent report on i-teams (innovation teams) by Nesta. There is comparatively little academic writing about using “design” approaches in policy making in central government. This research fellowship will draw on academic research in design studies, participatory design, participatory governance, participatory action research and management research to provide a thorough review of this emerging initiative. It will present an account of what such approaches do within central government policy-making, aimed in the first instance at the PolicyLab’s key stakeholders.

My research will anchor the Policy Lab’s activities within a strong evaluative framework supported by academic research and co-designed with its major stakeholders through a collaborative process. This framework will enable the Lab to evaluate and analyse the impact its approach and methods have on developing and implementing policy.

My two main outputs will be a report summarising the evaluation framework and a literature review that combines different fields to support further academic research into this emerging area.