Fellowship report now available: “Applying Design Approaches to Policy Making: Discovering Policy Lab”

During 2014-2015 I spent three days a week embedded as an academic researcher in Policy Lab, a team in the Cabinet Office working closely with government departments and with the UK Civil Service’s policy profession. This was enabled by a fellowship from the Arts and Humanities Research Council while I was principal research fellow at the University of Brighton, building on other work including Mapping Social Design Research and Practice. Policy Lab is one example of an innovation team inside government, a growing network and set of practices.

The report summarises findings from the research informed by literature in design studies and organisation studies. It uses a format inspired by graphic novels in order to open up the work of interpretation about the role of design approaches in policy making and government.

Some excerpts from the report are below. If you want to (re)use them, please note this work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Please use this citation: Kimbell, L. and Macdonald. H. (2015). Applying Design Approaches to Policy Making: Discovering Policy Lab. University of Brighton.

Click to download report (6MB, PDF)










agonisticlab_key_insightsPolicy Exploration Framework


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.

Ethnography in policymaking: Barriers and opportunities

Originally published on the Cabinet Office Open Policy blog on 27 March, this is my write up of an event I chaired during Open Policy 2015.

Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: “Due to [the employer] not helping (they didn’t provide sick pay), I got into extreme financial difficulty. Benefits weren’t enough to cover everything and everything went wrong. The empty fridge represents no money as I couldn’t feed myself sometimes.” Picture and story from Katrina, circling in and out of work with a physical health condition, Sussex (name and details anonymised)
Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: “Due to [the employer] not helping (they didn’t provide sick pay), I got into extreme financial difficulty. Benefits weren’t enough to cover everything and everything went wrong. The empty fridge represents no money as I couldn’t feed myself sometimes.” Picture and story from Katrina, circling in and out of work with a physical health condition, Sussex (name and details anonymised)
Increasingly on the agenda of policymakers is a need to understand the needs, capacities and perspectives of citizens, service users, beneficiaries and front line staff so that policies are fit for purpose and deliverable and public services are better designed. Ethnography is seen as one way to achieve this. Based on a methodology originally associated with anthropology, ethnographic approaches are now found within product development, innovation, strategy, marketing, and research and development in a wide range of organisations from Intel and Amazon to start-ups to central and local government. In the UK, the Government Digital Service (GDS) and government departments, as well as others such as Nesta and the King’s Fund have promoted ethnographically-informed approaches to doing user research.

But the value of ethnography is not simply that it’s a method for understanding people in the context of their own lives, although it does offer that. The real potential for ethnography in policymaking is to help reframe government’s understanding of its purposes and how the world in which it exists and which it shapes is changing. This insight emerged from a panel discussion organised by Policy Lab in the grand surroundings of the Churchill Room during Open Policy 2015, during which three people with different perspectives reflected on the opportunities and barriers for ethnography in government. An audience of over 50 people, the majority of whom were civil servants, gained a valuable overview from leading practitioners applying ethnographic approaches to contemporary organisational and social issues.

The first speaker, Dr Simon Roberts of Stripe Partners, set the scene, informed by his extensive knowledge of applied ethnography from consulting work and gained by twice co-chairing the international Ethnographic Praxis in Industry conference. He summarised what makes ethnographic research distinctive and illuminated the ongoing challenge of understanding its value and impact.

Next up was Lisa Rudnick from Interpeace, previously at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, where she co-led the development of the Evidence-based Program Design tool and the Security Needs Assessment Protocol with Derek Miller, now of the Boston-based consultancy, The Policy Lab. Sharing perspectives gained from conducting ethnographic research in post-conflict contexts such as Nepal conducted with Ruth Edmonds,  she highlighted the importance of not just using the parts of ethnography that generate local descriptions, but of engaging ethnographic analysis of those descriptions as well as the basis from which to design, or implement, policy for shaping local action on the ground.

Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: Photo taken by interviewee Kelly to highlight the amount of work required to manage health conditions at her place of work. (Details changed)
Example of ethnographically-informed research output from a Policy Lab/Department of Health/Department of Work and Pensions project about people in employment with health conditions: Photo taken by interviewee Kelly to highlight the amount of work required to manage health conditions at her place of work. (Details changed)

The third speaker, Rupert Gill, is a policymaker within the Department of Work and Pensions, currently using ethnography as well as data science approaches on a joint project with the Department of Health and Policy Lab. He shared some of the challenges civil servants face when trying to make use of ethnography in a policymaking culture which values particular kinds of argument and evidence.

What ethnographic research is

  • Today’s ethnographic research in organisations exists on a spectrum from hypothesis-free, exploratory research over several months into topics such as “ageing and mobility”, to targeted requirements gathering over a few days to inform the design of a service.
  • As a kind of qualitative research, ethnography investigates worldviews, socio-cultural structures and the practices that shape behaviours. It’s not just finding out what people think, listening to what they say or watching what they do.
  • Ethnographic research makes a commitment to being there with people in their worlds – which these days includes people’s digital lives. Its emblematic method since anthropologist Malinowski went to the Trobriand Islands a century ago is participant observation.

What ethnographic research produces

  • Ethnography is not just descriptive fieldwork. It’s a theory-building endeavour that makes use of research from across the social sciences. While the data might include stories about people’s lives, in their own language and categories, or observations about what people do, what is just as important is the interpretive analysis of that data. Or as Lisa Rudnick put it, “It’s not the story that matters for policymaking. The value is in what makes the story make sense.”
  • As a result, the output of ethnography is informed by people’s stories, and generates insights derived from people’s day to day experiences, but is better understood as an analysis of a social world within which people exist within and have relationships with others including organisations, governments and places.

The opportunity for using ethnography for government

  • The value of ethnographic research is how it creates (re)framings of a social world and helps an organisation understand what it exists for. Reflecting on the impact on technology firms such as Intel, which have made extensive use of ethnography over nearly two decades, Simon Roberts argued, “Ethnography has created a space and a possibility for organisations to reshape their understandings of the world and their understandings of how they have those understandings.”
  • The opportunity is for government to address the complexity of society by understanding people better in the context of their lives, and then changing the focus of policy responses, especially when things are changing. Rupert Gill said there was an appetite for this within the civil service. “We hope to get insights we wouldn’t get elsewhere and use them to create interventions we wouldn’t otherwise have thought of.”

Barriers and challenges

  • The culture within which policy making takes place is dominated by the need to produce evidence that is statistically valid, and not “policy by anecdote”. The small sample sizes associated with ethnographic research may not be seen as valid in this context. Minsters who have to give an account to parliament about their policies feel more confident about analysis from large data sets. But there is a contradiction here, in that ministers also get first hand access to, and are influenced by, stories from their constituents – a kind of field data with very small samples sizes.
  • What’s needed is to combine quantitative data with other approaches, recognising what each brings. “It’s real depth that we need and we can’t get this from numbers,” argued Rupert Gill.
  • Within the UN and peacebuilding contexts in which she works, Lisa Rudnick shared how the approach she co-developed (with Derek Miller) makes managers accountable for the data they use (or don’t) to shape their decisions. Like the policy tests being used in the civil service, this involves asking managers considering a proposal if they have the right kind information for the question at hand, enough information and whether it’s reliable. Posing such questions makes any commitment to action rest on research findings, not on data points or methods.

Policy Lab, GDS and government departments continue to explore ethnographic approaches in practical projects in policy making. If you are a civil servant, look out for guidance on the Open Policy Making Toolkit, Civil Service Learning short courses and Policy Lab workshops to try using the approach yourself.

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.