Draft findings from fellowship

Research question

What is the difference that Policy Lab’s approach makes to policy making?

1 What the Lab approach is/does

Lab’s approach problematises policy making – it’s not just exploring new tools, techniques and new data. Policy Lab connects/reassembles/tweens actualities and potentialities, problems and solutions, thinking and doing, inside and outside.

The key characteristics of this approach are that it is based in:

  • Abductive discovery, through which insights, guesses, framings and concepts emerge eg ethnographic research, co-design, prototyping in the fuzzy front end of policy making.
  • Collective inquiry – through which problems and solutions co-evolve, which is participatory, and through which constituents of an issue are identified and recognised, and solutions are tested eg prototyping.
  • Recombining experiences, resources and policies – the constituents of an issue – into new (temporary) configurations.

2 What Lab approach results in – its impact which we can seek proxy measures for

Project level – Relating to the policy area

  • New insights, guesses, framings
  • Plausible concepts for artifact-experience bundles
  • Prototyped proofs of concept – “proto policies”
  • An issue team/public engaged in a collective inquiry engaging with a more ordered problem

Capabilities in within the policy profession and wider ecosystem

  • Reordered relations between actors in an issue (inside and outside an issue)
  • Reordered relations between actors and evidence
  • Reordered timings
  • Ability to set up and participate effectively in collective inquiries and early-stage abductive exploration
  • Awareness of the interdependencies between experiences, resources and policies

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.

Introducing sprints to policymaking


This post discusses what agile approaches can bring to policymaking. It is based on my recent participant observation in a “policy sprint” organized by the Policy Lab in which I am embedded as an academic researcher. The sprint took the form of a two-day workshop held in Whitehall, followed the next day by a half-day stakeholder workshop, during the early phase of a larger, ongoing project involving Policy Lab, the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) and the Department of Health (DH).

The focus of the project was better supporting people in relation to their health and employment outcomes. The activities involved a co-located, cross-disciplinary and cross-government group of people including policymakers and specialists skilled in ethnography, data science and design research, in exploring a policy issue and working out collectively what research and design activities were needed to move the project on.

Inspired by and drawing on the “sprints” used in agile software development, this event brought a new way of working to policymaking. A recent blog post by Lisa Ollerhead of the Cabinet Office Open Policy Making team, drawing on her experience of GovCamp, in which she adapted the principles of the agile manifesto discussed what agile approaches might bring to policymaking. She concluded that one significant challenge is establishing what the deliverable or output of a sprint is.

As part of its remit to try out new tools and technique for policymaking, Policy Lab decided to use an agile-inspired approach within one of its demonstrator projects to see how these principles could be adapted to the challenge of developing policies, rather than software. A blog post published right after the event by Cat Drew of Policy Lab, who led the sprint, summarised what happened in the January workshop and how it worked.

The purpose of this post is to analyse what the sprint did for the project. The data on which it draws are notes and photographs from my participant observation, emails and documents, as well as interviews and responses to a survey distributed to participants after the event.

Background – agile, lean, design thinking for policymaking

The concepts and activities used by Policy Lab to shape its policy sprint are not new. Within government, many of the principles and activities associated with agile software development inform the work of the UK Government Digital Service (GDS). For example the GDS approach to designing government services that are “digital by default” is shared here, including a discussion of using sprints. Some of GDS’s terminology and approaches are also found in government departments, especially that have in-house digital teams. The space that Policy Lab is exploring bringing this approach to the early stage of making policy, not building digital services.

Internationally there are other examples of bringing design and digital approaches to policymaking, which share lineages with agile software development. The Helsinki Design Lab, part of Finish innovation agency Sitra which was active between 2008-2011 organized “studios”, typically week-long collective inquiries into an issue such as ageing in Finland, the outputs of which included a roadmap of strategic improvements (see Steinberg 2014). These approaches are closely related too to design-led innovation. For example, innovation consultancy IDEO organizes “deep dives” into issues such as the one on the shopping cart filmed by ABC television in 1999, which involved multi-disciplinary teams collectively inquiring into a problem area, generating ideas and creating rough prototypes of potential solutions.

Related principles such as looking at the bigger picture and systems thinking are also found in other UK policy initiatives like the Total Place programme run by the Leadership Centre for Local Government. The Troubled Families programme takes a “whole person” perspective on families and their interactions with public services.

There are also overlaps with lean start-up, popularized by books by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf (2012) and Eric Ries (2011). Key concepts here include rapid experimental cycles in which entrepreneurs articulate their hypotheses, build software in chunks known as “minimum viable products”, test them with customers and then, depending on the results, “pivot” by switching to a different product or business model if necessary.

Within agile software development, a sprint is usually understood as a time-limited set of activities which result in delivering working software. Used more loosely in the context of policymaking, here this policy sprint was an intense burst of activity that focussed on the early stage of a project – called “discovery” in software development, which will be followed by other short, intense bursts of co-design and prototyping over the months to come.

Principles in the policy sprint

In the preparation, design and facilitation of its policy sprint, Policy Lab recombined principles borrowed from agile, design and lean start-up as follows:

  • Recognition that a project’s context cannot be fully understood or defined. Instead, the focus is on enabling a team to form and to work together to achieve something meaningful in a short time frame. Instead of trying to do a definitive analysis, the emphasis is on generating provisional accounts of an issue, and on an orientation towards repeated cycles of collective learning, idea generation, prototyping and synthesising.
  • Staging a collective enquiry into the issue. The sprint event recognised that there is already considerable data and analysis within the two departments involved and beyond. The design and facilitation of the workshop enabled a range of participants from different backgrounds collectively identifying “what we know” and “what we don’t know” to synthesise current knowledge and identify gaps relevant to the project at hand – albeit without being fully comprehensive – in order to move forward the project’s goals.
  • An orientation towards cycles of practical work. The development of new products or software should be based on trying things out with real customers (lean start-up) or via cycles of iteration based on defining user needs, delivering software and testing it with users (agile). These partial, temporary placeholders for solutions are termed minimal viable products (in lean start-up), which is the minimum set of functionality that is of value to end users. Agile software developers use the terminology of alphas and betas, which suggests evolutionary development. The policy sprint was positioned as the start of a project structured with fast learning cycles.
  • A holistic approach to understanding the experiences of the target population and those around them. Lean start-up aims to identify customers’ needs and test hypotheses by engaging them directly. Agile starts by identifying user needs and builds software solutions for them. However the context of policymaking is systemic: there is no single customer and nor should the focus just be on only service users. Instead a holistic agile approach for policymaking acknowledges citizens and service users, but also family members, other members of the public such as neighbours, front line staff and managers in delivery agencies, volunteers, but also ministers and other actors in the wider political and policy environment. For example in the case of this project, the sprint brought into focus the role of GPs, HR personnel and line managers as well as family members, friends and colleagues shaping the experience of people becoming ill.
  • Less emphasis on producing definitive documentation, and more emphasis on co-articulating just-in-time knowledge. The emblematic artefact associated with design thinking and agile software is the post-it note. Along with whiteboards, flipcharts and other such low-fi organizational technologies, post-it notes emphasise the provisionality of ideas and knowledge because they are easy to write on, stick up, move around, edit, or remove. Further, the collective activity of writing things down on post-its and sharing and clustering them on a wall makes collective knowledge and ideas visible to everyone – at least those who are in the room and able to see. Collections of post it notes stuck on to flipchart paper, which are then photographed and shared offer repeated snapshots of the current status of a project. In contrast to the highly polished, formal reports produced by government, such arrangements of small fragments of ideas and knowledge highlight policy making as a work-in-progress.


Blank, S. and Dorf, B. 2012. The Start-Up Owners Manual: ‪The Step-by-step Guide for Building a Great Company, Volume 1.

Steinberg, M. 2014. Strategic Design and the Art of Public Sector Innovation. In Bason, C. (ed). Design for Policy.

Reis, E. 2011. T‪he Lean Startup: How Today’s Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses.

Report on Policy Lab prototyping workshop during Open Policy 2015

This is an edited version of a post first published on the Cabinet Office Open Policy Making blog

A room full of people making Play-Doh shapes of ducks and monkeys might not seem an obvious way to start a conversation about prototyping in government. But asking people to do this as part of a workshop for policy makers allowed the speaker, Andrea Siodmok, head of Policy Lab, to surface at once three of the key principles of prototyping. The workshop for civil servants was part of Open Policy 2015, a series of events across UK government departments in February 2015.

Policy Lab’s workshop highlighted three principles. First it’s about making ideas tangible. Second, it makes them shareable and discussable, so that they can then be improved upon. Third, it is a collective activity that many people can contribute to. This fast-paced session kept these principles in view as it enabled people to explore what prototyping in government might mean at the earliest stages of policymaking.

The UK Government Digital Service has championed within the Civil Service both understanding of the value of prototyping and the skills and processes to do it in the context of digital services. Nesta has promoted the approach through its prototyping framework. The Design Council has worked with several government departments to generate and prototype service improvements. The Cabinet Office Open Policy Making team argues for the importance of early stage experimentation in policymaking. Policy Lab’s demonstrator projects with the Home Office, HMRC, Department of Health and Department of Work and Pensions, some of which are described in posts on the Open Policy blog, are working out how prototyping can take place in policymaking and what impact it has.

Lab prototyping materials

As a result, in government the idea of prototyping is now spreading beyond digital services. I’ve heard policymakers refer to their policies as “alpha” and “beta” versions.

This is where Lab’s Open Policy 2015 workshop came in. Participants included policymakers from areas such as tax and pensions as well as the Scottish Government and UK Trade and Investment intrigued to find out more. Sharing examples of work from previous roles in local government, Andrea showed how practical, low-cost prototyping helped reduce time to delivery, reduce wastage and costs from rolling out ideas that don’t work, and improve the likelihood of take-up of a policy.

Mixed team of policy makers prototyping their idea

Having excited people about the possibilities in the first hour, the second hour was even more hands on. Andrea set a challenge – but gave people an opportunity to work on their own policy area if they wanted to (none did). The challenge was to respond to the brief “What if visiting a GP was based on the idea of ‘The patient will see you now’? How would this change the whole primary healthcare system?”

Participants then self-organised into three groups, found somewhere to work in the basement conference room where the workshop took place, and got stuck in. They helped themselves to craft materials arranged on a table as well as flipchart paper, post it notes and pens. Policy Lab staff were on hand to help with practical advice and encouragement, for example suggesting looking at three phases – making appointments/arriving, seeing the doctor, and after the visit, and focussing in on one persona representing a particular user segment and their needs. Policy Lab also gave each team one ‘challenge card’ to provide an extra focus, for example “What if the service was people-powered?”

Team of policy makers making their ideas tangible

Over 45 minutes participants moved from analysing what did not work in the current patient experience of GP surgeries, to generating ideas about how to redesign the service based on the principle of ‘the patient will see you now’, and giving it physical form. What was striking was how people who had never met before managed to work together to explore a complex area, generate and realise and share their ideas in an open, creative way.

The workshop ended with a two-minute presentation by each team – all of which involved some degree of role play and performance, bringing their ideas to life and helping the rest of us understand how patients would interact with the new service. Their service concepts were rough-and-ready but complex, combining organisational processes, people’s behaviours and interactions, established technologies (such as buzzers, digital devices or wifi) used in new ways, as well as communications and spatial design.

Policy making team collaborating via prototyping

The takeaways from this workshop were

  • A sense that prototyping is not a technical jargon, but an approach to exploring ideas and taking action to move a project on
  • Understanding that prototypes can take many forms, from physical models, to role play or digital mock ups and that prototyping involves interacting with things as well as telling stories
  • Recognition that users of government services experience policy through their interactions with places and digital and material things
  • The benefits of working collaboratively with people from different backgrounds and perspectives to generate and co-design ideas together
  • The appetite among some policymakers to try out new things and work in a more open, generative way. Policy Lab is currently developing materials for policymakers to be shared via the Open Policy toolkit and also specialist courses for Civil Service Learning.

Prototype of new primary healthcare service

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.