From Evidence to Prototyping

In the first months of the Covid19 pandemic, a group of key actors in the growing public sector innovation (PSI) discourse addressed the general confusion among public servants through a series of online workshops on “How Not to Waste a Crisis.” The diverse speakers––from activists and UN policy analysts to designers––repeated long-standing calls for the need to innovate policy making, service delivery, and administrative procedures. Declaring the crisis an opportunity-in-waiting, they argued that the pandemic had exacerbated underlying problems in democracy. In the almost two years since, PSI advocates from leading global innovation consultancies have seized upon critiques of inadequate digital infrastructure, slow crisis management, and democratic deficits or backsliding to promote creative, deliberative, and participatory mechanisms for dealing with public problems. Public administration, they contend, has to be reformed such that silo-thinking is minimized, opportunities for cross-ministerial collaboration enhanced, and most importantly, new connections between citizens and public administration established. According to PSI advocates, democratic deficits are rooted in government’s inability to understand, manage, and remediate social challenges or solve technically and socially complex problems in demographically mixed, value-pluralist communities. At the core of the debate is an explicit critique of earlier innovations like New Public Management (NPM) and program budgeting whose overly rationalistic focus on outcome-based performance measurement and evidence-based policy making builds on technocratic epistemologies that fail to generate the right kinds of knowledge for dealing with complexity. Among proposals for greater government digitization, innovations to procurement procedures, or improvement of evidence evaluation is also, perhaps surprisingly, participatory or human-centered design. Building in part on traditions of policy design and deliberative planning but also on private sector practices like industrial design, architecture, and information design, this peculiar design practice places a premium on collective knowledge generation in which both technical expertise and lived experience have to be accommodated. It is this collective and creative approach that today proffers democratic alternatives to technocratic policy or public management conventions. 

This project seeks to make sense of the current phenomenon of design in government genealogically, by situating it in a prior moment of administrative innovation: Third Way politics. Tracing contemporary PSI debates and consultancies to one site of origin in the UK, I show that New Labour’s rethinking of social democracy not only prefigured but set the stage for public sector design ideas and practices today on an institutional as well as methodological level. Many of the ideas that are still at the heart of current innovation debates emerged at a moment of reflection on what leftists policies should do in a rapidly changing world. Continuing some aspects of Thatcherite policy on the diminished role of the state in public welfare provision, New Labour promoted sweeping administrative reforms that took up an NPM approach to administrative reform which focused on quantitative performance measurement. I trace these debates from their origin in British Marxism in the 1980s, through the role of think tanks in the early 1990s, to a series of experiments with design at the time of Blair’s New Labour administration in the early 2000s. 

Often billed as the maturation of neoliberalism, the 1980s and 90s in the UK witnessed ongoing arguments over what it means for government to serve the people and how the success of failure to do so should be measured. But rather than repeating established analyses about the neoliberalization of the state–like the responsibilization of citizens through the marketization of public services or workfare programs and holding civil servants accountable through benchmarking or auditing–I argue that New Labour can also be read as a moment of experimentation with new democratic forms in the face of historical transformations. Against this background, then, today’s PSI and especially public sector participatory design can be read as an attempt to recast public bureaucracy as an integral part of contemporary democracy rather than as a necessary technocratic exception to otherwise democratic processes. Design in the public sector, then, for better or worse, is one mechanism through which technical democracy is enacted today.