Open Policy Making toolkit

Sensitive policy tools

Tools for sensitive or unannounced policy areas.

Behavioural insights


  1. Introduction
  2. When to use behavioural insights
  3. Examples
  4. How to start using

About behavioural insights

Behavioural insights applies behavioural sciences like behavioural economics and experimental psychology to policy. Behavioural sciences seek to understand how people make decisions in practice; how their behaviour is influenced by the context in which their decisions are made and how they are likely to respond to certain options.

These insights enable you to design policies or interventions that can encourage, support and enable people to make better choices for themselves and society.

When to use behavioural insights

You should consider using behavioural insights when you have a policy idea or concept that you want to test to see how it will work in the real world. Behavioural science can then be applied to the idea to see how and if it will work in the real world. You can then use these findings to react and improve the policy.

Behavioural insights interventions are usually simple, highly cost-effective, and often yield surprising results. Civil servants have successfully used them in the following ways.

If you would like to find out more about the team’s work, including commissioning to undertake projects, please get in touch with one of the members of the team by emailing

Examples from around government

1. Home energy improvement

A generous government subsidy did not seem to be resulting in much uptake of loft insulation among homeowners. BIT research suggested the effort required to clear out their loft was discouraging people – a good example of a ‘friction cost’ or ‘hassle factor’. BIT offered a loft-clearing service (which customers had to pay for), greatly increasing the number of people taking up the subsidy.

2. Increasing tax payments

BIT worked with HMRC to tackle late payments for self-declared income tax. They made one small change to HMRC’s standard letter: including the sentence “9 out of 10 people have already paid their tax”. Highlighting the normative behaviour significantly increased prompt tax payments bringing forward £200 million in revenue. More specific norms (such as “9 people in your area with a debt like yours have paid their tax on time” were more effective than generic norms

3. Encouraging people to become organ donors

Millions of people renew their tax disc on the DVLA website every year. BIT thought this would be a good opportunity to prompt people to join the organ donor register.

BIT trialled 8 different messages, based on various behavioural insights, including a call to action, emotional messaging (“3 people die each day because there are not enough organ donors”) and social norms (“Every day thousands who see this page decide to register”).

A message based upon reciprocity worked best (“If you needed an organ transplant would you have one? If so please help others”), adding 100,000 donors to the register in 1 year.

Read more case studies from BIT.

How to start using behavioural insights

BIT has produced 2 reports to help you draw on the increasingly rich findings from the behavioural sciences: MINDSPACE and EAST. These provide simple frameworks to help policy makers apply behavioural insights.

If you would like to find out more about the team’s work, including commissioning the to undertake projects, please get in touch with one of the members of the team by emailing

Challenge panels


  1. Introduction
  2. How to run a panel

Challenge panels: an introduction

Challenge panels use experts to look at weaknesses and ideas to improve them current or future policy. Policy experts can test and provide constructive challenge to the policies from a real world perspective.

A challenge panel is one of the simplest ways to organise feedback and testing of a policy before it is launched as it only requires inviting experts in the field.

How to run a challenge panel

Challenge sessions work best when a policy team is prepared to explain their position, is open to challenge, and willing to listen.

Challengers must be focused, able to raise issues from non-government perspectives, and willing to provide tough constructive criticism.

If the event is being facilitated by someone who is not involved in the policy and willing to direct the discussion, drawing up key themes where policy is underperforming is made easier.

There should be a small number of independent, diverse challengers; for example people who used to work in the team, other government departments, think tank members, journalists, business specialists, parliamentarians, non government organisations, economists, scientists or community groups.

You shouldn’t be defensive or respond to every point – challenge panels are about listening and being open to new ideas

If your policy area is sensitive, consider setting up an agreed confidentiality document that states your expectations are for non-disclosure of information.

Change cards


  1. Introduction
  2. When to use change cards
  3. How to use change cards

Change cards: an introduction

Change cards are questions that help people think outside of the box and discuss possible directions of a policy. They are cards with questions on them like ‘what if we had no budget?’ and ‘what would a start-up do?’ that help people think outside of the box with policy ideas.

When to use change cards

Change cards are useful in the early stages of designing a policy when you are trying to understand what users need and want from a policy area. They are also useful when you have gone through all the usual ideas and need to think differently.

You can combine change cards with other tools to quickly understand and generate ideas with users and experts. Role play, challenge panels and hack days all work with change cards.

How to use change cards in a 1-hour workshop

Before the workshop create some change cards on A5 pieces of card. You will need to decide whether the cards pose a question with words, or stimulate debate with images. Find a space to work where you can stick things on the wall to enable discussion and free flowing ideas as you present cards to the group. Ideally find a space with several tables and chairs so that people can work in groups of about 4 to 6 people. Artefact and Policy Lab provide advice and guidance for creating change cards from. These ideas for questions may also help:

  • what if we had no money? / what if we had an unlimited budget?
  • what if people were our only resource?
  • what if we did the opposite?
  • what if we exaggerated the idea?
  • what would we do in 2040? / what would we have done in 1920?
  • what would we do if there were no computers? / what would we do it we had to provide it all online?
  • how would a child design it?
  • what if we merged 2 ideas?
  • what would an entrepreneur do?
  • what would they do in the USA?
  • what would the public want us to do?
  • what would we do if we couldn’t legislate? / what would we do if we could only recommend best practice?

At the workshop

You should give people permission to be creative and work differently. An icebreaker exercise or facilitators can help you make the session flow more freely.

During the exercise people should define their own challenge and organise themselves into teams with people from different backgrounds to stimulate new ideas. Doing a hope and fear card or knowledge safari before you start is often a good idea. You should then discuss the policy area as a group before individually working with change cards.

People should look at the change cards they are given and then present their ideas one by one, explaining the criteria they are using. After the exercise you can invite people to vote about which ideas work best and discuss together which ideas to take forward.

Data science


  1. Introduction
  2. When to use data science
  3. How to start using data science
  4. Tips for data science
  5. Ethics of data science

Data science an introduction

Data science uses advanced software, computer power and artificial intelligence to analyse and visualise big and complex data to provide useful insight that can improve an understanding of a problem and design better policy.

Data science analyses any form of data, from large quantitative (numerical) data sets, to unstructured qualitative (descriptive) data that doesn’t fit in a standard database. This can take the form of free form text, interviews, consultations, images or phone calls, to name a few. It can even analyse real time data that is constantly changing and point out trends, views, themes, sentiments, characteristics or any kind of finding you can think of.

Examples from around government

  1. The London Fire Brigade created a prototype data visualisation to help them see where they needed to improve reaction times. This used data available from various fire brigades and visualised it using a heat map and google maps to easily show where the service needed to focus it’s money.

  2. The Foreign Office allowed policy makers to visualise their international connections on twitter accounts. This used visualisation tools to showcase where any communications they wanted to spread could be best targeted and enabled quicker sharing of information around the globe.

  3. The Government Digital Service have been using feedback to a service’s webpage can be used to spot problems with a service before it becomes a serious problem.

When to use data science

The wide variety of techniques within data science can be tailored to answer a policy question. If policy makers are aware of the types of things data science can do, it can provide new evidence, ideas and insights at different stages of policy development.

  • discovery: data science can help shape and frame your understanding of what the actual problem is, who it affects, and how
  • design: your data science analysis can provide evidence to plan your policy design
  • consultation: data science can help analyse responses and get a more rounded view of public ideas by using social media data
  • delivery: automated tools and processes can help at an operational level to understand how a service is working and how it can be adapted and improved; to increase efficiencies and to reduce human error or bias
  • evaluation: data science lets you take advantage of new data sources to evaluate your policy, like digital and social media data, and can help you present findings in a more accessible and transparent way

How to start using data science

Data science is a specialist skill and requires policy makers to work together with data analysts or scientists. A policy maker needs to understand what is possible so they can commission data science and identify new and alternative data sources for the data scientist to use. Using techniques like data science tool cards can help to inspire policy makers about what data to use and why.

If you are considering a data science project or would like to explore the policy questions you have and the data you hold, contact the analysts in your department. Policy lab can also help organise data science as part of a policy project with them.

You can contact policy lab at for more advice on a project that might include data science.

Tips for data science

There are a number of issues non-data scientists can consider and discuss with analysts to understand the potential of data for their policy area.

Read the glossary of common terms in data science.

Try and make the best use of existing data

Do you have data of particular value that you would like to understand better? Can you explore your data assets to see if there is untapped potential?

Complex free text data (eg from free text fields in consultations or on social media)can now be analysed in bulk for findings and trends. Some older data therefore can now become more useful.

To take complaints data as an example, the data science approach would look at more than just summary statistics of how many complaints have been received or dealt with. It would analyse the text, examining trends to understand demand fluctuations on a service, or looking at the language people use through sentiment analysis to see how they are interacting with a service.

This data may have previously been available but unused but data science allows you to explore that data and make use of it.

Combine multiple data sources

Your data might be more valuable when combined with data from other sources. The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has a target of ensuring vulnerable customers get access to schemes such as the Green Deal to install energy efficiency measures (eg cavity wall, loft insulation). DECC already held data on physical property characteristics like energy consumption, but when this was combined with Department for Work and Pensions welfare data this gave a richer insight into households that need energy efficiency measures.

Present data better

Datasets sometimes come in spreadsheet form with thousands of rows of complex figures. For a policy this is often incomprehensible. Visualisation data lets you to see the data and findings, share them with interested parties and ministers and make better policy. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office built a prototype of visa demand to show a story with the data.

Ethics of data science

The Cabinet Office has created Data Science ethics to help policy makers and data specialists to work together. The ethics is an ethical framework that brings together the relevant parts of the law and ethical considerations into a simple document that helps Government officials decide what it can do and what it should do.

  1. Start with a clear user need and public benefit: this will help you justify the level of data sensitivity and method you use
  2. Use the minimum level of data necessary to fulfill the public benefit: there are many techniques for doing so, such as de-identification, aggregation or querying against data
  3. Build robust data science models: the model is only as good as the data it contains and while machines are less biased than humans they can get it wrong. It’s critical to be clear about the confidence of the model and think through unintended consequences and biases contained within the data
  4. Be alert to public perceptions: put simply, what would a normal person on the street think about the project?
  5. Be as open and accountable as possible: Transparency is the antiseptic for unethical behavior. Aim to be as open as possible (with explanations in plain English), although in certain public protection cases the ability to be transparent will be constrained.
  6. Keep data safe and secure: this is not restricted to data science projects but we know that the public are most concerned about losing control of their data.

Data visualisation


  1. introduction
  2. When to use
  3. Examples of data visualisation
  4. How to visualise data

Data visualisation: an introduction

Data visualisation can be used with data science, open data and data analysis. It is used to take complex and often difficult to interpret data and visualise it in any appropriate manner. This can include maps, graphs, diagrams, journeys maps, personas or performance pages.

It is a powerful tool that can not only improve your understanding but the engagement of other parties and the trust in a policy or institution.

When to use data visualisation

Data visualisation can be used at any point in policy development. It can be used to help you understand a problem better and communicate this to both the public and ministers or senior civil servants. It can also be used to measure success and prove that a policy is working after a policy has been delivered.

Examples of data visualisation

How to visualise data

There are many methods and tools that you can use to visualise data. A good place to start at beginner level is Open Data Tools or RAW. These tools are relatively easy to master and can be experimented with to create compelling data presentations.

There is an easy beginners tutorial on that explains how to prepare and show open data in Google Maps. The Guardian also has an introduction to data visualisation and a more in depth course.

To further develop your skills, you can looks into courses in data visualisation, data science and coding, there are many available online, and many of these are free to do. Codecademy and Coursera are some examples.

Deliberative dialogue


  1. Introduction
  2. When to use a dialogue
  3. Examples from around government
  4. How to start a dialogue

Deliberative dialogue: an introduction

Deliberative dialogue uses an an impartial and facilitated environment to bring members of the public, experts and policymakers together to discuss policy issues and discover possible solutions.

A deliberative dialogue is not a public meeting nor discussion. It is a carefully structured conversation that helps people to not only talk together, but think together. Facilitators look for common ground and discover possible solutions by working with users in a safe and open space.

It uses a variety of creative techniques to help people develop and explain their views on an issue.

When to use a deliberative dialogue

You should start a dialogue in the early stages of policy discovery, so that the views of users and the public can be used throughout the design and delivery of policy.

Each dialogue process is different and can use any variety different deliberative techniques, objectives, people, and resources available.

A deliberative dialogue is a complex process that needs time and thought.

You should use experts to create and hold a deliberative dialogue. Using a facilitator is recommended so that a dialogue is independent and impartial. This will help the public share their true feelings and views.

Deliberative dialogue involves long term research and analysis so it can take a long time to do.

Examples from government

Deliberative dialogue has been used across government to understand the public’s views on the ethical, social and regulatory issues surrounding mitochondrial replacement and synthetic biology.

It has also been used to explore how the UK should reduce greenhouse gas emissions and what wellbeing data tells us about policy making on issues like loneliness, the labour market and being involved in your community.

How to start a dialogue

As a policy maker you should be involved in the dialogue but not lead it.

Contact Sciencewise to organise a public dialogue for your policy area.


Ethnographic research usually involves observing target users in their natural, real-world setting, rather than in the artificial environment of a lab or focus group. The aim is to gather insight into how people live; what they do; how they use things; or what they need in their everyday or professional lives.

Read more about ethnography and how to do it on the government service design manual

Guerrilla Testing

Guerrilla user testing is a low cost method of user testing. The term ‘guerrilla’ refers to its ‘out in the wild’ style, in the fact that it can be conducted anywhere eg cafe, library, train station etc, essentially anywhere where there is significant footfall.

Read the full advice and information for guerilla testing from the Government Digital Service

Hope and fear cards


  1. Introduction
  2. When to use hope and fear cards
  3. How to use hope and fear cards

Hope and fear cards: an introduction

Hope and fear cards use images to inspire people to express their objectives and concerns for a policy or a problem. You should use them at the earliest stage of policy development so that you understand the aims and needs of your team members, stakeholders and users.

They can be used with anyone involved in a policy project and are a good way of quickly understanding a group’s way of thinking about a particular problem and start debate on the problem.

When to use hope and fear cards

This technique works well in any setting because all you need is paper and pen.

Using [photo cards][InlineAttachment:Policy_Lab_HopesAndFears_cards01_lores.pdf] can make the activity more thought provoking and get people engaged quickly. The images act as metaphors for people’s hopes and fears – helping them articulate what they think already, and potentially encouraging them to think differently.

How to use hope and fear cards

You can create your own cards or use some [standard cards made by Policy Lab][InlineAttachment:Policy_Lab_HopesAndFears_cards01_lores.pdf].

If you want to design you own, start by picking as many pictures as possible. Inserting a small text box into the picture to encourage people to use a word or phrase to describe their hope and fear.

Leaving too much space risks people writing long sentences when the image should to do the talking.

During the workshop:

  1. lay all the cards out on the table – try and spread them out so that each picture is visible

  2. provide large coloured pens for writing: these work better than biros as they stop people writing too much and are much easier for everyone to read

  3. decide whether you want to address hopes or fears first

  4. give participants a set period of time (say 5 minutes) to pick the card that speaks to a hope/fear they have for the project/issue/challenge

  5. ask them to write 1 or 2 words in the space on the card that summarises their hope or fear

  6. depending on the size of the group, bring everyone together to share their hopes/fears, or ask people to get into groups and share among themselves

  7. display the cards on a wall or table where participants can return during the day

  8. repeat the process for fears/hopes

  9. reflect on the 2 sets of cards: is there anything interesting or surprising, any particular clusters, or vastly differing views (eg one person’s hope being another’s fear)

  10. encourage participants to revisit the hopes and fears throughout and at the end of the workshop to add to, remove or change what is there



  1. Introduction
  2. Examples from around government
  3. When to use
  4. Styles of interviewing
  5. How to organise and run interviews

Interviews: an introduction

Interviews are used to understand how a person’s lifestyle and deeper emotions impact their experience and needs of policy. Interviews should be used to generate insight into people’s lives, from their points of view and in their own language, rather than the government’s.

Interviews are used when running ethnographic research and user research.

Interviews can be used on anyone with an experience of a policy area. This can include front line staff, volunteers and public sector workers as well as policy users and members of the public.

Examples from around government

The Department of Health and Department of Work and Pensions used interviews to find out how to help people manage their health conditions in work. They conducted ethnographically informed interviews with people with health conditions, GPs, employers and Job Centre Plus staff to understand how they experienced the process of transitioning (or supporting people transitioning) in and out of work.

Policy Lab used the interviews and ideas to focus the policy problem on the needs of those interviewed.

When to use interviews

Interviews are a useful way of understanding your users, what they need and how they might react to your policy ideas. They can also give you first hand access to the people who have knowledge of the policy area.

Use interviews to inform Personas. Personas are fictional characters that help you understand the varied needs of many users.

You should use them when your understanding of a problem and the needs of people is still unclear. They can help you frame the policy problem and understand what you need to fix.

If you are looking for statistically robust evidence rather than emotive qualitative evidence, interviews will not work.

If you have a budget for using specialist ethnographic researchers, do not use interviews as you will be duplicating work.

If you run interviews yourself they can be cheap, but you may gain more insight by using professionals.

Styles of interviewing

Framework interviews

A framework interview uses a question sheet to guide the interview. It’s structured and can help you focus on one particular area of research. Framework interviews are very basic and don’t always allow interviewees to express more than is asked of them. This will give you less insight, but can allow you to use digital tools to conduct these interviews quicker.

Semi-structured interviews

A semi-structured interview is still structured with prepared questions, but is more open to where the conversation flows. These interviews offer much more depth and enable interviewees to share their personal views more easily.


Observation interviewing involves spending time accompanying the person in their day to day life to get a more deeper understanding of their life. Ideally you need at least several hours or a day for this.

Digital interviewing

Use digital interviewing techniques like online forms or video chatting to ask people questions. You can also ask people to contribute by sending in photos and videos that highlight their views and reactions.

How to organise and run interviews

Before you start interviewing people you should be aware of 3 important things.

  • your own bias: it is inevitable that this will shape your interpretations but there are methods to minimise this
  • ethics: you need to get people’s consent to being interviewed, agree about how you will refer to them or anonymise them, and minimise any harm to them from interviewing them
  • the work and expertise involved in interpreting the data: the real value of interviewing is to identify patterns and themes that emerge as you immerse yourself in the person’s world. You should capture and discover what’s underneath the people’s stories through the data you gather

Before you begin: decide on your approach to ethics

  1. get or create an informed consent form and clarify if the person is happy for their name and other details to be used when the research is shared. You should give them the opportunity to remain anonymous or change their name

Doing the interview: gather data

  1. introduce yourself and explain the research – build up trust with the person you are interviewing and confirm how long you expect to take

  2. depending on your research questions and the kind of interview you are doing, you might take up to an hour or 90 minutes

  3. right after the interview, make some notes about your impressions and the main themes in the discussion you had, also noting down anything that surprised you

Afterwards: analyse and interpret the data

  1. assemble the materials you gathered from all your interviews – notes, photos, audio clips, drawings – and think back to the location and situation of the interview, reflecting on anything that seemed distinct to that part of that world

  2. write down words or phrases that capture the sense of what you are hearing or seeing – this is called coding the data and might take several hours

  3. write down quotations from what the person said that exemplify a key point

  4. summarise the themes or patterns emerging across the codes into phrases or short sentences

  5. present your findings to a broader group of people to triangulate them

  6. ensure that the notes you’ll share anonymise the person you interviewed, if that’s what you agreed with them

Other resources

Journey mapping


  1. Introduction
  2. Examples from around government
  3. When to use
  4. How to do journey mapping

Journey mapping: an introduction

Journey mapping helps you to understand a user’s experience of a service or policy over a period of time. By plotting the experience of a user you can understand the interactions and touch points that people have regardless of department or policy boundaries.

Journey mapping puts you in the shoes of users. This can help clarify the exact and various components of that journey and help you to join up different experiences and policies that people use.

An example of journey mapping could be the experience of someone falling ill and leaving work. Journey mapping will visualise their experiences across multiple government departments, charities and private companies. The government will see this as many experiences, but to the user it is one experience that may need improving.

Examples from around government

Policy Lab has worked with civil servants on journey mapping to examine how to better support people who have a health condition and are at risk of leaving work because of it.

It also used journey maps to describe the experiences of people who have been a victim of a crime. It used the technique to understand how, and why they do or do not report crime to the police.

Policy lab has also used journey mapping to help scope out a project to support people going through divorce or separation to use mediation services rather than going to court.

When to use journey mapping

Use this tool when you are at the early stage of understanding the policy problem and user needs. You can also adapt the tool and use it when interviewing people by asking them to map out their journey to help explain their experiences.

Journey mapping works well when you have little time or money, and you want to understand an issue from the perspective of citizens, users or frontline staff. It can also be useful when you want to involve a range of people in exploring an issue, some of whom have deep knowledge of the lives of people and some of whom may be operations or delivery-focused, or when your understanding of a policy problem is still unclear.

How to do journey mapping at a workshop or hack day

Work with groups of people who interact with your service or policy area and ask them to map their journey for you. User journeys can be fictional or real life – this will depend on the people you are working with.

What you’ll need:

  • long rolls of paper
  • sticky notes
  • bluetack
  • good quality fine point marker pens – they make everyone’s drawings legible and better looking

What you need to do:

  1. put several long pieces of paper on the wall before you start – 1 for each team

  2. you could also start with a persona creating exercise to help participants think about the issue as a whole

  3. ask teams to pick 1 person whose journey they want to map – they should map out on the long piece of paper the main phases of this person’s journey as they experience the issue

  4. encourage participants to maintain a strong focus on the person’s activities and their interactions with service touch points during the journey

  5. ask participants to describe things in the user’s terms and language, rather than that of government. If data is available from research, share this and invite people to use it. If not, use team members’ knowledge to create a rich, complete picture of a specific user interacting with public or other organisation or service over time

  6. prompt participants to provide lots of detail, however apparently mundane or unimportant. What is obvious to one person may provoke valuable insights in another

  7. ask them to identify emotional highs and lows

  8. get people to identify opportunities for improvements to service touchpoints or other kinds of interaction, or where no touchpoint exists but it would improve the experience

  9. invite participants to share their journey maps with one another

  10. discuss themes emerging across all the ideas people have generated

Journey mapping with interviews and shadowing

You can also map people’s journey by shadowing, interviewing and researching the experiences of people and mapping their journeys afterwards. This can help you to map exact experiences of your policy or service.



  1. Introduction
  2. When to use personas
  3. Example
  4. How to create personas
  5. Persona templates

Personas: an introduction

Personas are fictional users and characters created to represent the different people that might use, or be impacted by your policy.

They enable you to consider the goals, requirements, needs and lifestyles of different audiences that your policy will reach and need to answer to. This can include users, ministers or managers and can be broken down into groups of age, abilities and beliefs.

Use personas to create empathy between policy makers and the people your policy will impact.

When you should use personas

You should create personas when you have a deep understanding of the people that your policy will impact or need to answer to. You will need to have carried out some user research and data analysis before you attempt to create personas.

Personas can work during any point of your policy design process as a way of creating empathy and reminding you of the people your policy has to work for.

Avoid letting your personas become stereotypes that limit your understanding of users and people. To do this you should include the people that your personas are supposed to represent when designing personas.

You should constantly re-evaluate personas based on user research so that they are up to date and relevant.

Examples from around government

The Government Digital Service (GDS) uses personas to understand their audience better:

When we thought about who would need information on the performance of GOV.UK, we considered a range of audiences from ministers and senior management through to GDS product managers and developers.

We interviewed the different types of staff who would need to use the dashboards and then we mapped them showing their level of seniority, whether they were in the department or outside it and key relationships. For key customers, we made personas to better communicate their needs and goals.

How to create and use personas

Personas should be based on user research, ethnographic findings and data analysis of users and people your policy will impact. You should create between 6 and 10 different personas so that the diverse needs of the people your policy impacts are represented fairly.

Including quotes from interviews, facts about what the segment a persona represents and aims for that particular persona will help you describe the character further.

Persona templates and design examples

Policy Lab


  1. Introduction
  2. What Policy Lab does
  3. Contact

Policy Lab: an introduction

Policy Lab is bringing new approaches to policy-making. From data science to user-centred design, it provides fresh thinking and practical support, working as a research and design testing ground for policy innovation across government.

The Lab is funded by departments for departments and works on projects coming from all parts of government.

Open-policy making is key to the Lab’s approach. Policy Lab creates a neutral space for policy-makers to collaborate across departments and engage with the public and external experts in key policy areas. This involves a rigorous, collaborative process, working in close partnership with policy teams and using a range of innovative tools and techniques.

The practices of Policy Lab are described throughout this toolkit and in the Policy Lab Methodbank.

Policy Lab support is best suited to tackling intractable, complex, systemic policy problems that require fresh thinking that can lead to potentially transformative solutions.

So far, Policy Lab practice has involved three main areas of focus:

  • delivering new policy solutions through inspiring practical projects
  • building the skills and knowledge of the policy profession and wider civil service
  • inspiring new thinking and innovations in policy through writing and experimenting

The Lab’s approach is agile, flexible and iterative and can help departments in many ways.

  • support policy teams to identify new insights into the needs of service users
  • generate ideas that can stimulate innovation and transformational change
  • acquire knowledge and expert opinion to inform policy development
  • create opportunities to enhance the deliverability of policies through testing and prototyping
  • produce efficiencies and cost savings.

Policy Lab has so far worked on ten practical projects ranging from policing in a digital age to, family mediation and the future of ageing. As of November 2015, 2,500 civil servants who have been involved in lab lights, sprints, policy schools and learning and development training courses. The Lab has also engaged with a wider community of over 5,000 people inside and outside government through talks, workshops and its online presence.

Policy Lab offer lab taster sessions, which are an opportunity to work up a project idea in an introductory workshop for policy teams who may be interested in running a lab project. These are usually followed by policy sprints, which are more intensive, collaborative workshops over one to three days designed to help teams accelerate a project.

Lab full projects can run from three months to a year and involve working intensively with service designers, ethnographers, data scientists and subject specialists on complex challenges. Policy Lab also run experiments, designed to develop a number of policy “firsts” for government. The Lab also invite departments to set a challenge or join us to try our new ways of working through one off trials of new and emergent techniques.

If you are interested in working with Policy Lab email

An introduction to prototyping


  1. Introduction
  2. Why you should prototype
  3. Examples from around government
  4. When to prototype
  5. Issues to be aware of
  6. Types of prototyping

Prototyping: an introduction

Prototyping is trying an idea out to see how it might work, before the pilot stage. Prototypes can take many forms, from simple physical models to role play and more elaborate digital or physical mock-ups. Deciding on the right approach depends on the questions you want to answer, the stage you are at in a project and the resources you have available.

Why you should prototype policy

  1. It can save money. Prototyping can spot and fix design flaws that can be costly, even in small scale pilots.
  2. It makes abstract concepts visible and tangible in the context of the lives of users. This helps policy advisors to understand what a proposed solution might be like, raising assumptions and issues early on.
  3. It gives confidence about the likely benefits and implications of a proposed direction or solution, so that it can be trialled on a larger scale in a more rigorous way.

Examples from around government

  1. Home Office crime reporting tool

In a Home Office workshop involving senior police, academics, civil servants and victims’ representatives, groups used simple craft materials, Lego and video to quickly build and share ideas on new ways to report crime. They then combined these ideas into prototypes of solutions, and discussed them to clarify which ones they valued most.

This worked well because the home office was able to try an idea on a small scale.

Building on early rapid prototyping of the first example, the Home Office is now working with Sussex and Surrey Police to try out a new online crime reporting tool and use feedback to improve it.

  1. Prototyping national insurance letters HM Revenue & Customs wanted to come with up with new ways of communicating with young people about National Insurance. They ran a workshop where young people re-designed the letters and worked with a group of policymakers, youth engagement specialists and frontline staff to improve these prototypes. The resulting versions of the letter were then presented to and discussed with another group of young people to find out which would be most effective.

  2. An example of what not to do. A local authority which spent £200,000 on a recycling pilot that was a failure because people did not understand the uses for the different coloured bags that were provided. If they had tested the bags on a single street first, they could have avoided a costly mistake and redesign the experience to work with the users and avoid confusion and wasted spending.

When to prototype

Prototyping is especially important at the early stage of developing policy, when an issue is not defined, there are many possible solutions, and the cost of changing your mind is low. Prototyping is typically used iteratively, improving continuously, to build up confidence in a proposed solution so that an idea is ready for a larger scale trial.

Prototyping can accelerate a project by putting ideas through their paces by making them tangible and exploring their implications early on and make policy more deliverable by finding out very early on which ideas work or don’t.

You should use prototyping to:

  • get feedback from people who have knowledge of the policy area, especially the lives of people connected with it, including frontline staff
  • understand what a policy change might be like for the people who will be directly affected by it
  • build momentum and interest in a policy area and in possible solutions

Issues to be aware of

Prototyping requires some clear thinking about what you are trying to learn. You might start with an idea about how people will respond to the concept (deductive reasoning) and use prototyping to test it. Or you might also have a more general proposal as part of a prototype – “what if the solution was like this?” and be very open to people’s different responses.

Prototyping for policy making is different to trialling or piloting. Prototyping is often ‘quick and dirty’, involves lots of variables and does not produce statistically valid results. Trialling or piloting usually has fewer variables, clear outcome measures, and an experimental protocol to produce reliable evidence, with a sufficiently large sample size. Prototyping builds evidence, momentum and a public interest in the issue. It often generates new insights, whereas trials produce evidence in response to a clearly defined question.

Types of prototyping

There are many types of prototyping that can be used at various stages of policy creation to test and express ideas and solutions. Check them out in the sections below.

Additional resources

Prototyping in a workshop: Tabletop prototyping


  1. Introduction
  2. Why and when to use tabletop prototyping
  3. Examples
  4. How to use tabletop prototyping
  5. Additional resources


Tabletop prototyping involves creating simple mock-ups or physical models showing the intended result of a policy in the real world in order to bring the idea to life through role play or storytelling. Tabletop prototyping lets people to quickly understand a potential solution from the perspective of end users or other people involved such as social workers, GPs, other frontline service staff or family members. This enables a discussion about the possible benefits or drawbacks of the proposal and can help define ideas at an early stage.

Why and when to use tabletop prototyping

Table top prototyping is quick and uses cheap materials and engages people creatively and critically to develop and assess ideas when they are still early in development. Although the tool can be used at any point of policy design, it works best when the understanding of a problem and its solutions is unclear.

Using table top prototyping often works well with hack days or idea and policy jams because it allows people to work together to generate lots of ideas, and explore and consider them from the perspective of people the policy would affect.

Examples from around government

Policy Lab has helped civil servants successfully try out tabletop prototyping as part of a workshop with a wide range of policymakers. For example, a mixed group of of about 20 people, most of whom had never met before, spent an hour together responding to “What if visiting a GP was based on the idea of ‘the patient will see you now’? How would this change the whole primary health care system?”

Participants self-organised into 3 groups, found somewhere to work together, and used craft materials, flipchart paper, sticky notes and pen to come up with ideas.

Policy Lab staff provided practical advice and encouragement, for example suggesting looking at 3 phases – making appointments/arriving, seeing the doctor, and after the visit, and focussing in on 1 persona representing a particular group of users and their needs. Policy Lab also gave each team a ‘challenge card’ to provide an extra focus, for example “What if the service was people-powered?”

For 45 minutes participants analysed what did not work in the current patient experience of GP surgeries, and generated ideas about how to redesign the service based on the principle of ‘the patient will see you now’, giving it physical form. People who had never met before worked together to explore a complex area, and generate, realise and share their ideas in an open, creative way.

The workshop ended with a 2-minute presentation by each team and feedback from the other people present. All the presentations involved some degree of roleplay and performance, bringing their ideas to life and helping everyone understand how patients would interact with the new service. Their service concepts were rough-and-ready but complex, combining organisational processes, people’s behaviours and interactions, established technologies (buzzers, digital devices or wifi) used in new ways, and communications and spatial design.

How to do tabletop prototyping in a 1-hour workshop

You will need materials to help people express their ideas. Some examples are:

  • Lego
  • small cardboard boxes
  • sticky notes
  • marker pens
  • bluetack
  • scissors
  • coloured card
  • paper
  • sweets (not to eat, but used as small, colourful items)

You’ll also need a space to work where you can stick things on the wall, ideally with several tables and chairs that people can work at in groups of 4 to 6

During the workshop:

  1. give people permission to be creative and work differently with an icebreaker
  2. set a challenge or ask people to define their own challenge
  3. get people to self-organise into teams, ideally with people from different backgrounds
  4. give people a clear timeframe and set expectations about what kinds of things they can make
  5. invite them to respond to the challenge by exploring it from the perspective of people involved, not the system; 6. come up with ideas using the materials and present their idea for feedback, for example using simple role play to show how someone would interact with or walk through their model or mock-up; take photos or use smartphones to video each presentation
  6. get teams to present their ideas one by one, with other people giving constructive feedback and explaining the criteria they are using
  7. you might invite participants to vote about which ideas work best
  8. discuss what ideas seem to work and what you want to take forward

After the workshop:

  1. summarise the ideas generated and the ones you want to take forward and why
  2. share the photos and videos

Additional resources

Touchpint prototyping


  1. Introduction
  2. Examples
  3. Why and when to use tabletop prototyping
  4. How to use tabletop prototyping


A touchpoint is an interaction between a service and a user which could be digital, material or person to person. For example a touchpoint could be a letter, a website or app, a form someone fills in to claim or apply for something, or a session with a care assistant or other service professional. Prototyping takes very little time, uses cheap materials and helps people develop and assess ideas when they are still at an early stage.

Examples from around government

HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) wanted to improve the way they communicated with young people about National Insurance (currently a letter sent out a few months before someone reaches the age of 16).

A process of rapid touchpoint prototyping took place over a month. Working with a specialist service design agency and Policy Lab, HMRC ran a workshop where young people re-designed the letters. The agency combined these ideas and produced 5 letter prototypes. Another workshop with a group of policymakers, youth engagement specialists and frontline staff reviewed and improved these prototypes.

The resulting versions of the letter were then presented to and discussed with another group of young people to find out which one would be most effective.

When should you use touchpoint prototyping?

Touchpoint prototyping usually happens after you have done some research into a policy area and understood problems from the perspective of people directly affected – service users, frontline staff or volunteers. You might create a user journey map to understand how people currently experience the service and identify high and low points. Through this, you will identify touchpoints that you want to improve and explore ideas about how to do this.

Once you have identified potential ideas for newly designed touchpoints, new touchpoints or new services that are worth exploring in more depth, you can mock them up and test them on service users or others who have first hand knowledge.

This could be a prototype letter, printed screenshots of websites, or a set of role play cards for a new type of conversation between a service user and provider. These tests will provide immediate feedback to use to improve your idea.

How to do touchpoint prototyping in a 1-hour workshop

You will need materials to help people express their ideas. Some examples are:

  • Lego
  • small cardboard boxes
  • sticky notes
  • marker pens
  • bluetack
  • scissors
  • coloured card
  • paper
  • sweets (not to eat, but used as small, colourful items)

You’ll also need a space to work where you can stick things on the wall, ideally with several tables and chairs that people can work at in groups of 4 to 6

At the workshop:

  • give people permission to be creative and work differently with an icebreaker
  • set a challenge or ask people to define their own challenge
  • get people to self-organise into teams, ideally with people from different backgrounds
  • give people a clear timeframe to work within and set expectations about what kinds of things they can make
  • invite them to respond to the challenge by exploring it from the perspective of people involved; come up with ideas using the materials provided and be ready to present their idea for feedback, for example using simple role play to show how someone would interact with or walk through their model or mock-up, take photos or use smartphones to video each presentation.
  • get teams to present their ideas one by one, with others giving constructive feedback
  • you might invite participants to vote about which ideas work best
  • discuss what ideas seem to work and what you want to take forward

After the workshop:

  • summarise the ideas generated
  • share the photos and videos

Experience prototyping


  1. Introduction
  2. Examples
  3. Additional resources


Experience prototyping is similar to touchpoint prototyping but rather than looking at one touchpoint it involves more than one touchpoint in the user’s experience of a policy or service.

Experience prototypes help quickly communicate and explore what an intended future experience could be like, so that it can be continuously improved. They help explore the possibilities and implications of future services which might involve personal interactions or situations in which someone is interacting with many organisational touchpoints.

Prototyping experiences allow a project team to explore, share and refine solutions involving key people such as service users or frontline staff, who have first hand knowledge. They also help build support from other stakeholders, explore assumptions and reveal unintended consequences.

The learning from prototyping helps build confidence for choosing a policy direction which might then later be followed by a larger scale trial, or help avoid costly mistakes by discovering a suggested proposal won’t work at later stage.

Examples from around government

A project for Cornwall Council aimed to create new ways to give unemployed people over 50 access to information about local work opportunities. Following interviews with older people who were out of work, but who did not visit job centres, several ideas were generated.

One of these proposed building on the connections that people have with shop staff they see regularly on the high street, adapting the traditional Cornish idea of the ‘huer’ who announces from the cliff top the arrival of fish in the sea. The service concept was then explored in more depth through experience prototyping.

Designers from agency ThinkPublic created an experience prototype with local pharmacists, bookstore owners, news agents and retailers whose day-to-day work involves significant contact with the public. They were invited to be a new kind of huer. Over a few days, the ‘High Street Huers’ were asked to identify people looking for work or in need of health care assistance. They were invited to use their interactions with customers or visitors to their shops to talk and to establish the most relevant and useful services for them. Then, if people required more information, the huer jotted down their contact details, and passed them on to the relevant Cornwall Council service provider,to follow up. Through prototyping this experience on a high street for a few days, the project team identified which of the high street huers were trusted as intermediaries for these kinds of conversations about public services.

Additional resources



  1. introduction
  2. Examples
  3. When to use sketching
  4. How to use sketching

Sketching: an introduction

Asking policy makers to sketch their ideas disrupts conventional ways of working where people rely on words.

Asking people to sketch things instead of writing brings out new ideas that are more easy to understand and improve. Research into how designers go about their work shows the act of sketching or making is where ideas emerge.

Examples from around government

Policy Lab has helped civil servants and users to use sketching to come up with new solutions to the lack of new homes being built.

HMRC has organised collaborative with involve young people that used sketching to redesign the letters that give them their National Insurance number. They also used sketching to generate ideas for other parts of their lives (like school) where they could learn about the importance of National Insurance.

When to use sketching

The main reasons to do sketching are:

  • to generate lots of ideas fast
  • to create a broader range of ideas, including some unlikely ones that may help you reframe current understandings of the issue
  • to create a shared understanding of the opportunities quickly
  • to get and keep people engaged in a project
  • to broaden the range of participants able to contribute to solution finding

How to use sketching

  1. Ask people to sketch touchpoints – points at which users, frontline staff, or other people involved such as family members or volunteers, interact in relation to the issue you are considering. They don’t have to just be from government or public services.

  2. These touchpoints could be:

  • web pages
  • leaflets
  • smartphone apps
  • emails and text messages,
  • signage
  • products, packaging
  • media, eg websites, TV programmes or adverts
  • environments and places such as homes, offices, clinics, cafes, schools or shops public spaces such as parks, sports or community centres, bus stops or trains
  • mundane things in the built environment such as posters, signs or bins
  • journeys or cartoon strips

Probably many or most of the participants in a workshop will not be that good at drawing, which helps to break down hierarchies. Keep the focus more on what people draw, rather than the quality of the drawing and there’s more room for surprise.