Design thinking covers the gap between a well-intended policy and a sub-optimal policy outcome by considering the interests of the most vulnerable.
After Abhijit Banerjee won the Nobel Memorial Prize for his work on impact assessment of public interventions, randomised control trials (RCTs) have been in the news. RCT has emerged as an important policy tool for assessing the outcome of public interventions due to advancement of the research by him and his colleagues at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). However, any public policy outcome can only be as good as the policy design. Over-reliance on tools that capture policy impact without looking into the entire gamut of policy is tantamount to solving only a part of the puzzle. RCT, if done alone, may not lead to an optimal outcome. Instead, we need ‘Design Thinking’ to optimise the policy outcome by addressing problem and processes holistically.
Policy practitioners use RCTs to establish causation between the outcome and policy inputs. This is achieved by comparing the outcomes demonstrated by both controlled and treated groups. Random assignment ensures that the control differs from the treated population only in treatment. All else remaining equal, it brings out the effect of treatment on the independent variable, thereby establishing a causal effect. There are many unanswered questions regarding the applicability of randomised experiments. However, the fact remains that, in real life too, ‘all else’ doesn’t remain equal. As a result, attributing the causal effect solely to the public policy intervention may be akin to misconstruing a mere correlation as causation.
Another concern regarding RCTs is the ethics of using it in countries where access to quality public services or welfare measures is a necessity rather than a choice. It was because of this concern that, when Finland government conducted an RCT to assess the impact of Universal Basic Income, citizens protested, driven by the apprehension that some would be excluded to create a ‘control group’. In the end, despite taking more than three years, the trial could not conclusively prove or disprove the positive impacts of providing a universal basic income to citizens. For policies of overarching impact, affecting a large population, it may not always be possible to devote so much time.
RCT, as practiced in public policy today, lacks the ability to positively influence the policy process and outcome while it is being conceived. This issue can be addressed by using a design thinking process in policy formulation and implementation. Design thinking helps to reduce the chasm between what governments do, or intend to do, and what citizens expect from those actions. It amalgamates approaches that help governments understand policy problems better and those that help develop solutions that find resonance with citizens, thereby helping it to be assimilated easily. Countries like Singapore and Australia have been using a design thinking approach to improve the quality of government interventions. As part of Singapore’s Design 2025 masterplan, different government agencies took initiatives to redesign community living experiences, public transport, and public libraries by incorporating design thinking processes. Some countries, like Australia and the UK, have even codified design thinking tools to be used by government agencies.
Design thinking fosters an engagement with citizens, who are the ultimate clients. For example, many urban local bodies in India, while planning urban roads, focus on the engineering and construction aspect. But, in a design thinking approach, roads are considered as socially interactive urban spaces, and planned keeping in mind usage by different agents, including children and the differently abled. Similarly, while planning a financial inclusion or social welfare scheme, it is imperative that the process and services duly consider the interests of the most vulnerable. Although this appears simple, these things are often overlooked while developing public policies—especially in countries like India, where policy interventions are aimed at improving citizens’ ease of living, this has greater significance.
There are different steps involved in a design thinking process. The starting point is for policymakers to show professional empathy towards the users’ needs. It is also important to identify and define the problem rightly. Then, through environmental scanning and scaling, different dimensions of the problems are explored. This leads to co-creation of ideas, followed by prototyping and testing. Design thinking adopts an obvious human- and user-centric approach, involving and engaging end-users.
Design thinking stresses the value of early stakeholder engagements, especially clients of public policy interventions. Solutions for myriads of policy problems are often simple, and focus on needs and aspiration of the people. However, the difference between a well-intended policy and a sub-optimal policy outcome is, more often than not, an ill-conceived policy design. Design thinking requires specific skills that are codified in diverse disciplines, including anthropology, psychology, sociology, communication, and design and architecture. With a little more focus on design thinking, most well-intended policies can achieve the desired outcome. So, let us introduce RCTs where they are essential, but also make sure that public policies focus more on design thinking to fix the centrality of end-users in public policies.
Bibek Debroy and Sajeesh Kumar N. Debroy is Chairman, PMEAC and Kumar is Director, Ministry of Railways . Views are personal