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Deliberative design: Aligning public policy with users’ DNA

This guest blog is by Mary-Herbert Copley, who explores the links between evidence and deliberative design when engaging in problem-solving for our institutions.
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Do you ever wonder why so many thorny societal problems are never solved, or the so-called solutions that are launched are not durable?

The real reason, in many cases, is the framing of these “problems”. They are framed in a manner that does not accord with the real challenges, and therefore defy appropriate and successful solutions. Framing demands both a systems-thinking, evidence-based approach along with empathy with regard to how all the stakeholders view the problem – especially the end-user.

One of the reasons we have so many problems framed incorrectly is because many actors believe they alone are responsible for articulating the problem – whether because they believe it is their exclusive “mandate”, or they have special intelligence on the matter at hand, or they are the “owners” of the space. The bottom line, however, is if they are not the ultimate user – be that a citizen, consumer, employee, etc., they will never fully understand the problem. An example is public housing – bureaucrats see it through the lens of bricks and mortar, but tenants see it as ghettoization and lack of a sense of community.

We see poor problem framing in all sectors: private companies fail, not-for-profits misread problems and have reduced influence or fail entirely. In these cases, suffering is mostly limited to the organization, and sometimes, their clients. But this is not the case for the public sector. When governments—from neighbourhoods to nations—fail at resolving economic, social and/or environmental challenges, we, the full population of users, suffer.

Today the public sector struggles with a huge number of knotty public policy and service delivery issues. Their standard simple “consultations” – workshops, polling, focus groups, etc., are not delivering sustainable solutions. It is not surprising. Challenges are now more complex, fragmented, and with many often invisible interconnections.

Few leaders would deny that traditional approaches focusing on incremental change and working in isolation are ineffective; however, even fewer are at the vanguard of new methodologies that promise more lasting outcomes and improved relationships amongst all the actors.

So, what does it take to change the status quo?

Many countries, many organizations, and many people are now turning to approaches that fully implicate the users. If you cannot empathize with what the ultimate users’ perspectives, needs and strengths they have to contribute toward a solution, it is unlikely you will craft a workable solution that will address their “problem”. This approach is known as deliberative design.

For example, as cities struggle to deliver adequate affordable housing, it is evident that few municipalities have delivered a new or tweaked system that meets that needs of both the government and the users. Throwing more money at the system is not the answer either, regardless of what some advocates insist. Without deeply investing in the users DNA – desires, needs and assets – sustainable solutions that require trust and the acceptance of responsibility on the part of all stakeholders who are implicated will remain unattainable.

Using a strategic design approach, focused on community housing residents/users, the primary overall “problem” is lack of a sense of community. It is not surprising that the outside world generally refers to these areas as “the projects”. This lack of belonging more often than not results in indifference and often a vandalistic approach to their “non-property” and “non-community”. While crime often remains high, opportunities to escape are few. The tenants’ preferred solutions rarely focus exclusively on changing the housing stock, which is where the bulk of the bureaucracies land (since, after all, it is an affordable “housing” problem). The users are generally seeking ways to improve their “neighbourhood” – safer, greener, and more attractive. They often want more park and recreational space for the children and adults, better and more non-commercial street lighting, street calming measures to address speeding cars and more vigilant surveillance through community-based oversight in collaboration with the official law enforcement services. Slowly we are seeing changes to this ineffective approach to housing inequality, with the introduction of market housing and other mixed-use uses; however we are still not embracing the power of co-creating outcomes with the users.

Although different perspectives on the same problem lead to very different solutions, if the users – the ultimate players who determine whether the outcomes are positive or negative – are not comprehensively considered when framing both problem and solutions, the final outcomes are unlikely to be lasting.

It is time that governments, all levels, take a step back and rethink their approach on how they problem-solve. If it’s still broken, isn’t it time to fix the fix?


Mary-Herbert CopleyMary is a specialist in deliberative design who has worked with many organizations such as Carleton University, Changing the Conversation, and many others. She is passionate about engaging people in sustainable community building and has pursued this throughout her career in the public, nonprofit and academic sectors. She is highly committed to deliberative problem-solving, applying user­centric co-creation processes to address challenges in public and social spaces. She has a dog that talks and two kids who occasionally listen.

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