Below is a piece of design fiction focused on what it could be like to be a policymaker in 20 years’ time. The aim of the piece is to provoke discussion and debate about where the policy profession should be by 2040.
Michael the Outcomes Designer
Michael, 29, is an “Outcomes Designer”. His role is to use design approaches to work out what levers to use to solve an issue, and then go on to help implement them.
As these levers can range from policy, to services, to communication campaigns, to financial products to digital resources, he needs to utilise the expertise of others to meet his goals. In this vein, the term policy has been removed from his title, because the lever to be used isn’t always solely just policy.
In the piece he has written below, Michael has been asked to talk about his day to day work to local college students as an advertisement for joining the UK Civil Service.
Improving outcomes for citizens
I’m writing this sitting in a small shack on the edge of a port on the North East coast of England. I’m up here rather than in London because I’ve been asked to work up some ideas for how the government can support former fishermen into new careers. This has become an issue following the automation of fish catching in the North Sea. As there are no fishermen in Whitehall, it makes sense to actually look at this issue where the fisherman are, rather than 300 miles away in the capital.
I’m not here alone, but with a mix of government officials and local experts, including a former fisherman, an academic expert in lifelong learning and a secondee from a local further education institute.
There are no fishermen in Whitehall
Among the government officials, there are some with specific expertise (service design, data science, prototyping, user research, parliamentary procedure, service delivery), but all come from a background focusing on designing for outcomes. There is also one virtual team member from the Norwegian government who is working on a similar issue.
This team, like so many I’ve worked with in the Civil Service, is eclectic and inspiring. We each bring something different to the room that helps create better ideas.
At the start of this project (as we do with most), we spent a lot of time with Ministers and their support team to build collectively a greater sense of what the issue is that we are addressing. This involved a couple of sprints and a lot of quick ethnographic work.
Where the Minister doesn’t have enough time to do this, we can also make short videos or audio recordings to help bring them up to speed.
Following this, we have an initial integration period into the policy area. My initial integration period into fishing was fantastic. For the first couple of weeks, I spent Monday to Wednesday working with Lyle and Co., one of the last non-automated fishing vessels on the coast. Despite everything going on with their industry, their spirits were great, and they welcomed me in with open arms — even at times if I did think I was having to gut more fish than anyone else.
It may seem a bit odd to be doing this, but I learnt so much more in those first couple of weeks than I did from my big folder of research papers about the fishing industry.
After this initial integration period, my role turns into a discovery stage — finding out more about the issue and what we want to achieve. Being here with those impacted by an issue is of huge importance. It means I can get out and talk to some of the former fisherman, or invite them in, without too much cost or effort.
At one point I did have to tell Tim, a sixth generation fisherman, that he couldn’t pop in everyday for a cup of tea, although that appears to have fallen on deaf ears. Still, he keeps me in the loop with the local chat.
For instance, it turns out that some fishermen from a nearby port popped into the local pub the other day. Tim heard that their new apprenticeships don’t start for another month, and they don’t know how to pay their rent until then.
We decided to seek them out for a chat about this, and by the next morning my colleague — one of our team who is an expert in data science — had managed to run some modelling which showed where else in the country this might be a problem. She had been able to match apprenticeship course entry dates with rent payments, average cost per area and numbers of potential former fishermen.
It’s just a small example of the autonomy and agility we have in this outcomes designer role: to adapt and change as required and to be allowed to investigate new areas of interest. This is a key part of the modern Civil Service Code which requires us to “Be inquisitive” and “Be bold” (the other aspects of the code are to “Allow yourself to be wrong”, “Fail fast” and “Be naïve”).
In this and many other projects I’ve worked on, we’ve had to constantly adapt
In this and many other projects I’ve worked on, we’ve had to constantly adapt, sometimes even stopping a program where we see it isn’t going to work. I know in the past this was difficult for civil servants as changes could often be seen as failures in the press for the Minister in charge, but things have changed now. The public, and even the press, are much happier that they get better outcomes, even if it does take a couple of goes, or a tiny bit longer than expected.
The next stage for this current project is my favourite part — early stage prototyping. We’ve got a couple of ideas we are trying out around the region. One is hacked from an idea the Norwegian Government implemented, and another was suggested by some of the local fishermen. The Minister is extremely happy as the local podcasters want to come and record the process to see how the government doesn’t just implement, but listens and adapts as it goes along.
I don’t think any of these ideas are quite right, but by getting them out there I’m hoping to provoke some new ideas and suggestions from colleagues and people in the local area. This process is vital to our work and it helps the Minister fulfil her duties as set out in the “Fail Fast Act 2027”, specifically the duty to:
“share on a regular basis all policy development, complete or not, that has a direct impact on citizens to gain critical feedback”.
Once we’ve finished the prototyping, I hope to start implementing some of the changes that we think may work. It’s great to see something through right from the start to full implementation. There are so many small nuances that the whole team learns throughout the development stage; we really need to be there to the end to make sure they aren’t lost at any point.
Overall, being a civil servant and an outcomes designer is a challenging but fulfilling role. I travel a lot, which has its issues, but I can access my files from anywhere, and can easily move around thanks to my free train pass, which means I can hop on any train at any time.
Although I’m not always where the heart of the action is down in Parliament, I still get to facelink with the Minister and provide briefings for the Parliamentary Process team. They help me to convert the team’s work on the ground into what is needed for Parliament — meaning I can spend my time creating the solutions needed rather than simply updating briefing papers.