Five Lessons From The Policy Lab

Guest Blog: Five Lessons From The Policy Lab on Designing for Impact

By  Derek Miller, Director, The Policy Lab & Lisa Rudnick, Senior Researcher, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR)

For over a decade, we have been collaborating to find ways of helping organizations achieve better impact by design. The term “design” here has a double meaning.

 We help teams with the act of designing policies, programmes and projects because these are the mechanisms of change relevant to organizational and state conduct. However, “impact by design” also suggests intentionality because, to achieve something “by design” is to achieve it on purpose. [1]

The way we approach policy design, therefore, is to treat it as a creative and collaborative process that is carefully managed to ensure and track the movement of knowledge into solutions in an accountable and responsible way. This makes policy design akin to other design processes — like those we see in service design, or social innovation — but also one distinct in having a rigorous commitment to the transparent use of knowledge. This knowledge, becomes the raw material of policy design.

In our work together ( Miller of The Policy Lab, and Rudnick of UNIDIR), we engage in highly political and (usually) culturally diverse environments, including those ravaged by war and conflict. We are positioned at the dynamic nexus between the social innovation community and the policy community.  The following five lessons therefore respond to some of the challenges we have observed and met from this vantage point:

1. It’s not about innovation, it’s about impact:

In the public sector innovation does not have inherent value. Policymakers and planners are primarily motivated to achieve impact in their areas of responsibility. Whatever accomplishes that in an accountable and responsible (and predictable) manner is preferred. A commitment to “innovation” rather than “impact” can misdirect creative attention and confuse the relationship between social innovators and policymakers.

2. The purpose of designing policy is to advance the public will: Civil servants are agents of change within a democratic — not a market — paradigm. They are accountable to the people who have entrusted them to execute their instructions. Social innovators must understand the workings, practices and commitments of these people within this paradigm to be effective in working with them.

3. Solutions must be more than user-friendly, they must be organization-friendly: There is no use to being “user-centered” if users needs cannot be addressed because of organizational constraints . Only designs that strategically support organizations to provide for user needs will achieve impact.

4. Not just any design, but evidence-based design:[2] Bad policy design can cause unspeakable harm. Creativity must be governed by responsibility and accountability. That means showing how decisions are informed by knowledge, and designs are built from evidence. Far from limiting innovation, this is what makes innovation possible. Because innovative ideas that are not grounded in reality are not really innovative at all.

5. Those designing policy must be committed and accountable to doing no harm:[3] If the design or the social innovation communities are entrusted to help design policies for social impact, then they need to establish and abide by new criteria to help them “do no harm.” Both our processes and our outcomes must try and assure the greatest social good while causing the least social harm. Such an agenda is still not active in our professional communities.  We must be more than creative and systematic agents of change: we must be responsible agents of change.

There is an exciting and potentially seismic change taking place in the way problems and solutions are being brought together in today’s world. These are not our only lessons at The Policy Lab. They are, however, five useful ones when designing for impact.

[1] Our first major lecture on design and public policy was presented at the London College of Communication in November, 2010. That lecture was later published as Trying it on for Size: Design and International Public Policy, in Design Issues, Vol. 2, Issue 2, pp 6-16, Spring 2011. A link to the original lecture:

[2] For a discussion of evidence-based programme design see, for example, our publication with the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research: A Framework Document for Evidence-Based Programme Design on Reintegration, 2012:

[3] Our first lecture on the ethics of design for public policy was given at the University of Gothenburg, October 2010:



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2 thoughts on “Guest Blog: Five Lessons From The Policy Lab on Designing for Impact”

  1. This is very helpful. Thank you, Derek and Lisa. I just finished facilitating a workshop on leading innovation for a group from the Department of Corrections where I am. I wish I would’ve read your post this morning before I started the workshop. It would have shifted what I did and how I framed it. Each of your principles resonate with dynamics we wrestled with in the workshop. Your principles help build bridges between the social innovation framework I’m coming from and the public service institutional realities the participants work within.