Into the lab: how to apply design in policy

4 min readDec 2, 2023

I was at Policy Lab once and had a visit from the French equivalent 27eme Region and I used to work with Social Innovation Lab for Kent, and it made me think about what public services can learn from design in particular teams that focus on people and change like my own. Recently, I shared how public services need to open up more about how we develop change, in particular when local places are becoming more and more interdependent and connected.

1. What scale of challenge should we tackle?

I shared recently what trends I think will emerge or accelerate — moving from fixing to shaping markets, from designing services to building movements of transition or developing local places as platforms or mobilising people’s collective intelligence for collective action. I’ve also shared what behaviours we need to shift in order to anticipate & respond to systemic change flying past us.

For any team or service trying to tackle systems change, it’s important to define the boundaries of what you want to tackle.

  • Issues that staff & residents can tackle and develop solutions to themselves (i.e. like what Barking & Dagenham are doing with Participatory City)?
  • Issues that need multiple players to tackle & invest in (i.e. getting people into work furthest from the labour market)?
  • Issues that need social movements to achieve wider social change (i.e. knife crime)?

2. Solve the problem or shift the system: what type of change should we aim to achieve?

While the Government’s Policy Lab is perhaps the best example of a team tackling systems change, the best ways that people bring about systemic change cannot just be done by organisations, however innovative they become, they are developed by movements.

In the same way that it takes a village to raise a family, it takes a movement of different people across society who’ve built sufficiently strong relationships to work together to challenge themselves and their organisations & communities to work differently.

That’s why for any team tackling systems change, it needs to:

  1. Root itself in the distinctive identities & strengths of the place’s neighbourhoods
  2. Develop a movement that celebrates the creativity of its local communities and economies
  3. Mobilises people to build their social and economic resilience
  4. Help the organisation, partners & residents develop new capabilities to respond to the changes in how people live & work
  5. Enable staff, partners & residents experience, experiment & embed innovative ways to tackle issues together
  6. Build on the existing ways that the organisation and its partners are working differently

While tackling that systemic change needs support to help people tackle those issues, we need to focus as much on developing the culture that helps staff, partners & citizens to have the confidence to work in new ways, that could be based on the following steps

  • Develop a movement (like We Make Camden or Wigan’s The Deal) that celebrates the identity & strengths of the area and its specific neighbourhoods and mobilises people around the need for change
  • Launch community challenges that can tackle critical needs, build people’s resilience and can mobilise a sufficient movement for change
  • Develop “labs” around these challenges that bring different people together to connect, collaborate and create new solutions to these, be it on specific issues (i.e. loneliness) or neighbourhoods (i.e. Euston)
  • Prioritise support from the organisation and attract external partners to support people participating in these labs to test, embed & scale the change needed (like Policy Lab)
  • Enable people participating in these labs to focus as much on building strong relationships to sustain the change as the support to help them test ways to tackle the challenges

3. How could you develop this capability to help the organisation?

To develop the strategic capability of the organisation to become a platform for collective power, we need to think beyond functions & structures and beyond competencies, but also consider the attitudes & behaviours needed. NESTA’s framework for strategic experimentation provides a basis for identifying those skills & behaviours.

So that organisations can make the best use of the diversity of skills, methods & perspectives from across their organisation and the area, how about a distributed approach to running a strategy, change or transformation team.

How have you evolved teams you run to anticipate & respond to new challenges? What can we learn from other types of team (i.e. labs, networks, community)?




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese