Designing & innovating with the Ministry of Justice
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Designing & innovating with the Ministry of Justice

Design thinking
Social innovation

The MoJ’s experience of testing a Design Sprint approach to accelerate user-centred policy innovation (and begin to change the way government thinks). 

“No one knows everything, but everyone has a piece of the truth. Whenever you’re trying to solve a problem, you need to get different people who all have that piece of the truth in a space and give them the structure to help extract the right information from them, to come up with potential solutions. It’s a massively complex thing, but that’s what a Design Sprint can do. Now we have to show other people in government that it’s possible to experiment with new ways of doing things and come up with solutions to complex problems quite quickly so that they can have the courage to try it themselves. If we did more things like this, involved more people in our work, we’d probably end up with better solutions.” Jeffrey Allen, a Lead Service Designer at the MoJ

The issue of child sexual exploitation (CSE) has been in the headlines recently with depressing regularity. Last December it was reported that the number of ‘cases of child sexual abuse in the UK rose by almost a third in the last year’. Yet trying to tackle such a burning yet complex issue like this at policy level is no easy challenge. The first question – where do you even start?

It’s mid-September at the Royal College of Art (RCA) and groups of people are clustered around tables in the midst of a Design Sprint. Before them lies a wealth of research. Service designers, RCA students, researchers, coaches, the Ministry of Justice, leading CSE sector experts, What Design Can Do (WDCD), STBY, the Design Thinkers Academy London and more. All in one room. All collaborating towards one goal.

A collection of people you might not naturally group together, let alone intrinsically link. Yet that’s what happened when the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) accepted a challenge from the Design Thinkers Academy London to collaborate on a project addressing CSE as one of the pressing issues today. 

The journey starts all the way back in 2016, over in the Netherlands with non-profit What Design Can Do. Back then, David Kester, founder of the Design Thinkers Academy London and DK&A, supported WDCD’s founder Richard van der Laken, to set up an annual challenge programme. The goal: to use the power of design and creativity to transform society.

As Programme Director for WDCD, Lara Snatager, explains, it’s “about empowering and activating the creative community to help solve important or complex societal issues.” For this year’s challenge, called ‘No Minor Thing’, they started working alongside the Netherlands’ Public Prosecutors Service (OM) and Ministry of Justice & Security.

And this year’s brief: what can designers do to help combat the sexual exploitation of children?

Speed forward four months and the challenge is on British shores. David saw the opportunity to spread the project and maximise its impact. So, he got in contact with the MoJ.

 As Jack Collier, Head of User Centred Policy Design at the MoJ Digital, explains, “David Kester approached us about this idea of working with WDCD and the Dutch prosecutor on a really interesting complex social issue, that crosses the boundaries of policy and design. It was an opportunity to collaborate with leading experts in design, but also to tie that back to what we actually do, which is address policy challenges for government.”

This all linked into a wider desire to change the way that government works. “A lot of people talk about new ways of working and know the benefits but are scared to take the risks inherent in trying out something new. If we are to explore new ways of working, we’ve got to try stuff out – this is a challenge for governments – both to invest tax payer’s money in something that might not pay off and to admit that they need help to solve some of the biggest challenges of the day. This looked like a way to open doors.”

That desire to adapt government to work more with the design community is something Lara has also seen.

“Governments realise that they need people who look at problems and solutions from different angles, to keep up with fast changing societies and environments.”

Jelena Lentzos, a policy maker in Justice, who is developing a Future Delivery Model for victim support services including Digital Reform, saw it as an opportunity to try and tackle a very real problem, but also, to demonstrate alternative ways of solving complex problems in a policy environment. Jelena’s experience of delivering policy projects “highlighted the gap between talking about open policy making but failing to involve those affected by that problem in the design of a solution.”

Her experience showed that requirements were captured at the beginning of a project, frequently misinterpreted and ended up with solutions failing to address the real issues, usually after spending significant amounts of money. Inspired by attending the launch of ‘No Minor thing’ in the Netherlands and coming across the “Sweetie” avatar that helped influence a previous British Prime Minister, in raising the profile of online child sex abuse and the identification of perpetrators, she saw the Design Sprint as an opportunity to approach policy in a new way – a way that would involve users throughout and in a cheap, quick and efficient way.

With the MoJ on board, it was then a case of formalising the project. Jelena describes how touched she was by the number of people who were willing to give their time for free to help find solutions in support of some of the most vulnerable members of our society “there were major players in the child exploitation field (such as The Children’s Society and Barnardo’s) who were willing to give their time to something just because we asked.

We were very clear that we were trying something new and that we hoped to improve lives and they were in.” This included the RCA. With Dr Nick de Leon, Head of the Service Design programme, volunteering to involve his second year MA students and to kindly host the sprint, the project was set in motion.

This is where the Design Sprint came in.

For many this was the first time they had been involved in a design sprint. Jeffrey Allen, a Lead Service Designer at the MoJ Digital, had run one before, but in a restricted internal setting. This was an entirely different kind of challenge. Jeffrey worked alongside Holly May Mahoney, Design Lead at the Design Thinkers Academy London who was able to share with him DTA’s tried and tested Sprint approach.

First came the research stage, which meant a lot of work in advance. It was collated en masse, working with STBY, who provide ‘design research for service innovation.’ They built upon their WDCD research for the Netherlands but had to make it more relevant to a UK audience. The depth and quality of the research was paramount to the success of the sprint. It was then delivered to the delegates using a variety of unique and innovative techniques to really highlight the gravity of the issue and the importance of their work.

The next stage of the three-day Design Sprint was run by the Design Thinkers Academy London, with its tried and tested approach using a range of well-evidenced design thinking tools. Teams were brought together from a wide range of backgrounds and it was this collaboration that drove the research, the ideas and the eventual solutions. “Each team had a government policy maker, a professional service designer and an RCA service design student,” explains Jeffrey. “So, you had a really good mix, not only of skills but also of temperaments. If you want the best outcome in a short period of time, I think you need a multi-disciplinary team with a good balance of different experiences and also of ways of thinking and working.”

That collaboration, to bring “the policy makers, the third sector, the private sector, users, students” all together was “the real success of the sprint” for Jack.

“I think we would have struggled to do it without the (DTA’s Design Sprint) methodology" 

“It’s collaboration with all different sectors, all different mindsets, all different kinds of people. Being able to take part in a sprint is really attractive because it gives an opportunity to put people like Jeffrey and Natalya into the field with experts in service design and pair that up with policy design, in a really fast environment, learning very quickly.”

Jack adds, “the sprint is a way to accelerate things, to give you a different perspective and a different way of thinking.”

This dovetailed with the actual process itself, the ideation and bringing together of ideas. “It was encouraging an atmosphere of not having a bad idea,” Natalya points out. “Being able to say whatever you wanted, in a closed environment. That could be the next big thing, or it could be a Post-it note that you throw away – and that’s fine as well.”

Overlaying this was the energy and momentum that the Design Sprint built. Jelena saw immediately how “people were inspired by the issue and wanted to help,” something she feels government should open their doors to. “We don’t have the only monopoly on compassion and caring. There are a lot of people out there who would like to help – they just work in different industries but want to know how to use their skills to make a difference too.”

The main take out from this? A real desire to do more.

“What I took away was how it was possible to build momentum and excitement around something new (a Design Sprint). It renewed my determination to say – involving more people in our work and using different approaches isn’t optional, now we’ve actually done it, I hope people will pay more attention, we’re going to make them listen. We’ve shown them it can be done and we can do it again.”

A criticism thrown at design thinking is its reliance on ideas, on ideating, but not producing results. For Jack it is the next steps that remain the most important part of the project. “The Design Sprint is the springboard and the platform, but it’s what happens after which is the real crucial element.”

In the MoJ, this is the now. Jeffrey is currently pushing the second phase, working with the teams to “develop their ideas, to make sure they’re understanding the policy objectives for that space.”

The Design Sprint phase concluded with a panel of judges selecting the concepts with the most potential and providing guidance on their development. Amongst the successful concepts was a digital service to engage community members to spot and report even the smallest signs of what could be a case of CSE. Another pitch worked to empower youths to have a voice in reporting CSE. Another was a spin on a traditional youth centre service, catering specifically to teenage boys who are not finding belongingness in culturally normative ways. This was just the beginning, but the ideas are there, and they have growing potential.

As Jelena notes, “we’ve got this far. The Home Office have agreed to meet on two of the prototypes, as they think it’s worth it on some level. That’s a huge positive.”

The ‘No Minor Thing’ challenge culminates in a review by a panel of experts from the Netherlands and the UK, convened by WDCD. The best submissions from the UK, as well as the Netherlands, will be invited to showcase their concepts at the Innovation Congress held by the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security in Rotterdam on 20 November. Both the UK and the Netherlands’ governments are committed to investing in any viable, impactful solutions that are created during this challenge.

Then there is the other goal: “behaviour change, positive behaviour change within government about how we make policy.”

However, says Jeffrey, “that takes a long time to happen. We’re asking people to change their mindsets, to learn new ways of working. If we want to try out new ways of making policy, we’ve got to have a ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ approach. What we’ve done here is part of the grassroots bottom-up stuff, to prove this way of working can be effective. Now we have to talk to the people who have power to make change across the whole institution and get them to buy into it. They’re going to buy into it more if they can see examples of where it has worked. So, we’re providing the example, and now we need to communicate that example to the people at the top, so the change can come from both sides.”

So, for now, the Design Sprints need to continue. The positive, innovative outcomes need to keep coming, and only then can change truly happen. A wide variety of organisations are looking to new ideas and ways of thinking, and this includes design thinking, in particular through the delivery vehicle of a Design Sprint. Here is a method generating huge value at low cost, low risk, with a small investment in time. If it can be used for difficult and complex challenges such as this, where else could it go in the future? It will take time across the board, that is without a doubt. But when we start sharing that “piece of the truth” progress can be made. It’s now about embracing it and getting more people daring to give it a go.