What is a Policy Lab?

Reflection and Innovation

Policy makers are continually experimenting with different ways to make the policy-making process better – after all, policy making is a complex task. One of those ways is to apply design thinking to policy making through an approach called the ‘Policy Lab’. Design thinking itself is an iterative process which seeks to understand the user, challenge assumptions and redefine problems in order to identify strategies and solutions that may not be immediately apparent. This is important because humans naturally develop patterns of thinking, often referred to as schemas. These patterns are intended facilitate ‘short cuts’: they help us to apply the same actions and knowledge in familiar or similar situations. But they also have the potential to prevent us from developing new ways of seeing, understanding and solving problems. Design principles help us to see policy problems – and therefore develop policy solutions – with a fresh mind. Applied though a Policy Lab approach, this can involve:

  • Opening up policy making to user feedback, especially by examining policy problems through the lens of the people affected, whether service users or professionals such as doctors and police officers;
  • Reflecting on and reframing how problems are constructed, including by accepting ambiguity;
  • Using different types of data to understand problems and solutions, from statistics to ethnographic observations and, if necessary, reordering the hierarchy of evidence;
  • Exploring early-stage ideas through sketching, prototyping and testing without committing to them too early.

To date, Policy Lab approaches have been used to tackle a diversity of policy problems in a range of different contexts. In Finland, for example, a Policy Lab approach has been used to examine the acceptability and feasibility of using robots to enhance care for the elderly. In Tunisia and Oman, meanwhile, policy makers have used such approaches to gain a better understanding of youth unemployment. Equally, the UK government has deployed Policy Lab principles as part of a project working with the United Nations which aims to bring the voices of people in a geographically-distributed organisation into early stage policy development.

Policy Labs are not a panacea. But they do have the potential to disrupt engrained patterns of thinking which stymie innovation and the emergence of novel solutions to the local, national and global policy problems we face today.

Future Events

October 2019

On 28 and 29 October 2019, three MENASP network members – the University of Cairo, the University of Bath and the British Council – will co-convene a workshop aimed at introducing policy actors in Egypt to an innovative policy-making approach called the ‘Policy Lab’. Policy Lab approaches to policy formulation involve applying design thinking to policy problems to facilitate the identification of strategies and solutions which may not be immediately evident. Design thinking is an iterative process which seeks to understand the user of a service or product, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in order to generate innovative policy solutions.

Hosted by the University of Cairo’s Faculty of Economics and Political Science, the workshop will be interactive with the participants having the opportunity to engage with a variety of data types and apply their insights to a range of contemporary social policy concerns including the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 2030 agenda. The Policy Lab workshop builds on the outcomes of the following three MENASP roundtables held in Cairo 2019: the microeconomics of social protection (April); macroeconomics of social protection (July); and data challenges (September). The full Policy Lab workshop programme uploaded soon.

Past Events

July 2019

After focusing on the microeconomic dimensions of social policies in the first roundtable, the second one examined social policies from a macroeconomic perspective. The latter went very well and the discussion was very rich. We had around 20 participants from the Ministry of Finance, Ministry of Social Solidarity, World Bank, IFPRI, professors, researchers and NGOs.

In the first session, Yomna Khattab from the Ministry of Finance presented the main features of Egypt’s fiscal policy that are related to social protection then Mona Ezzat from the New Woman Foundation presented the nexus between the informal sector and social policies from a gender lens.

In the second session, we discussed several points as follows: first, how the Ministry of Finance can sustain its social spending without adding further pressure on its budget.

Second, to what extent, in the decision-making process, different ministries (especially Ministry of Social Solidarity and Ministry of Finance) coordinate to maximize the outreach of social programs (such as Takaful and Karama) subject to the constraints faced by the Ministry of Finance.

Finally, to what extent gender is mainstreamed in the design of these macroeconomic and social policies since.

All the participants agreed that we must have more frequent meetings to continue our discussions and we agreed that the third roundtable will take place during the second or third week of September.

Report by Chahir Zaki, Associate Professor of Economics at Cairo University

April 2019

On 14 April 2019, Cairo University hosted a roundtable discussion titled ‘Cairo Policy Lab April: Policy Problem Solving and the Impact of Takaful’ as part of the Social Mobilization for MENA Social Policy project organised by the University of Bath in partnership with the University of Cairo and the British Council in Egypt.

This one-day event brought together members of civil society as well as representatives from national and international research organizations and donor agencies to discuss policy problem-solving techniques in light of the Egyptian cash transfer policies, Karma and Takaful. Ms. Hoda El-Enbaby (Research Associate, International Food Policy Research Institute) presented results from the recent IFPRI impact evaluation of Takaful policies, including quantitative and qualitative evidence of its impact on the social and economic well-being of program participants.

Dr. Racha Ramadan (Associate Professor, Cairo University) led a fruitful discussion of study and future possibilities for Takaful. In the afternoon, Dr. Rana Jawad (MENASP network convenor, University of Bath) elaborated on policy problem-solving techniques and evidence based solutions. Participants defined a set of pressing social policy issues and worked together to assess the evidence available to address them. Topics examined included the lack of women’s empowerment, the narrow space for social research, the need for sustainable employment, and general tendency for replicating social policies from elsewhere.