Design-Thinking for Public Policy

By Kayla Auletto, Co-Director of McCourt Policy Innovation Lab

The public policy design process is a complex one. It usually involves identifying a problem, developing possible solutions, identifying key stakeholders, and a period of negotiation that can range from a grueling battle to a simple compromise. Public policy success is usually measured by outcomes and treatment effects. Did this policy save lives? Did the program decrease unemployment rates? Has the budget deficit shrunk?

What’s missing from this traditional approach, however, is a focus on the population that the policy is meant to affect. Too often the policy design process is focused on key power players- the legislator, the lobbyists, the association, or the PAC. And too frequently is the intended beneficiary left out of the discussion.

Enter: a human-centered design approach to policymaking.

Human-centered design is an approach used most notably by IDEO. Theyexplain it this way:

“Embracing human-centered design means believing that all problems, even the seemingly intractable ones…are solvable. Moreover, it means that believing the people who face those problems every day are the ones who hold the key to their answer.”

While this design-thinking approach grew out of the technology and product development industries, it has been applied to the social sector by organizations like IDEO, and our partners at the Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation. What the McCourt Policy Innovation Lab is doing that is truly innovative, though, is applying this process to public policy design. Not only are we putting the people of Wards 7 and 8 at the center of our policy design process for the Anacostia Waterfront redevelopment project, but we are engaging in the traditional 5-step design thinking process.

 Source: The Institute of Design at Stanford (

Source: The Institute of Design at Stanford (

As we seek to be pioneers on this ‘human-centered design for public policy’ journey, we will make a number of stops in the 5-step, iterative, path. We’ve spent this Fall semester trying to Empathize and Define the problem we are addressing, to learn about its context, to research possible solutions and best practices. As we move into policy design and innovation next semester, we will begin with Ideation, and move into Prototyping and Testing our policy proposals with the community East of the River. This will be a learning experience for us Policy Innovators, and we hope you stay with us for the ride.