Co-design as the reimagining, repositioning and redistribution of expertise

The idea that there might be a crisis of expertise in policymaking – a questioning of the role and legitimacy of expertise – is challenging for a public policy consultant. But, for an evaluator, it’s a given that evaluative evidence is only one piece in the policymaking puzzle. We might want it to have more weight, but we know that it must work in the context of politics and the democratic process.

So it was interesting to hear the various takes on the theme at Melbourne School of Government’s recent conference: A Crisis of Expertise? Legitimacy and the Challenge of Policymaking.

Keynote Professor Sheila Jasanoff kicked off day one by calling into question the ‘deficit model of the public’ in the context of the rise of alternative facts. Lay people can evaluate complex information and have their own knowledge that should be valued; we need to find ways to engage them in the democratic and policymaking process. To get to the point where we can imagine alternatives, we also need to acknowledge power structures, bridge traditional binaries and speak across disciplines.

Several speakers at the conference recognised co-design as one of a suite of tools to engage citizens in policymaking processes. I presented on our growing use of this approach to help ensure policies and programs better address core problems by engaging end users in deep consideration of the problem and an iterative process of prototyping, testing and refining solutions.

At this point you may be asking where the ‘traditional’ experts are in this process. We’d say co-design does not represent the rejection of expertise but the reimagining, repositioning and redistribution of expertise. If done well, it can help to address the problems, which Darrin Durant raised, of defining one type of expertise as bad and another closing of participation by technical fiat.

In a co-design process, end users are recognised as having their own expertise to bring to the table. Experts, in the traditional sense of the term, can be involved in the design process and help to refine the model based on evidence. Practitioners – whose own knowledge has sometimes been negated in the academic literature as Brian Head pointed out – can also contribute their practical knowledge of what’s needed and what works and what doesn’t.

This may be best illustrated by a case example. In a recent project with Amaze, the autism peak body in Victoria, we used a modified co-design approach to bring key stakeholders together to iteratively develop a strategy to improve educational and social outcomes for students with autism in the school system. This is certainly one of the complex issues about which, as Col Wight noted, there are always multiple perspectives. A co-design approach enabled us to recognise that and start to build a shared understanding among a group that included people with autism who provide peer support in schools, teacher and principal representatives, support staff and peak organisations.

We began by developing a root cause analysis. This is an analytical tool to identify the causal pathways that lead to a specific problem. The aim is to work back along each causal pathway toward the ‘root causes’ of the problem, so that these can be addressed. Sounds like a technical process, which one of my audience members pointed out, but actually it begins with a whiteboard and marker and a conversation – asking individuals what they know about what underlies the issues they see.

To make sure we captured the range of perspectives on the system, we began with individual interviews with each stakeholder to draw their own map. We supplemented this with a scan of the literature and a review of the student experiences in the school system – identified in the Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into services for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. We then combined individual maps into a comprehensive map of the causal pathways to the problem and refined this iteratively with stakeholders through two workshops. Through discussion in a small group, stakeholders were able to understand each other’s legitimate perspectives.

Once we reached this shared understanding, stakeholders used the map to identify key points at which to intervene and the priority elements of a strategy to holistically address the problem.

From there, we worked together to develop a logic model and evaluation framework for the strategy. Again, these are technical concepts, but they can be cracked open through capacity building workshops, and doing so can build a shared understanding of what is being done and why.

In other projects, we and our clients are using co-design with people with dementia and with people who have a personal experience of anxiety, depression or suicide, or support someone who does.

Co-design might not suit every situation – and certainly not ones in which there is a predefined model – but we believe it has a lot of potential to enable participants to understand each other’s truths, break down binary thinking and collaboratively build solutions.

Thanks to the Melbourne School of Government for a thought-provoking few days.

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