A little over a week ago we published the Agricultural Transition Plan. On page 6, we say:
We will be more flexible and will co-design our policies with farmers and other experts.
"Co-design" is also at the top of our list of guiding principles, on the next page of the plan.
So co-design really matters, and it's really important to the team here at Defra who are working on the transition plan roll-out.
I want to set out what we mean by "co-design", because it's a word we're going to be using a lot in the months and years ahead.
That’s not to say co-design is new to us: we’ve been using it for a while already, for example with our tests and trials work, and through detailed, ongoing engagement with farmers and experts on the design of Environmental Land Management.
We plan to build on that work, expanding and extend the principles and practices of co-design to our whole programme of work, in a more open way, from now on.
Our definition of co-design may change over time, but this is how we see it right now.
Co-design means involving people affected by our work
Co-design is a design approach that actively involves users and stakeholders from the beginning of a project, right through to roll-out.
It means we collaborate with everyone who has an interest to solve real problems with them. We actively seek their input and feedback, based on their lived experience, as we iterate and improve services.
Many government colleagues will be familiar with different names for similar approaches, particularly names like "user-centred design". There's a lot of overlap with those approaches, but co-design puts more emphasis on what we learn from the aggregated opinions of participants.
We respect and value the opinions of people who are living with our policies and systems every day and have experiences, stories, insights and information to share. They know more about what’s worked in the past and what hasn’t, and what we should learn from that.
For example: we are working with people who have deep expertise in different types of farms to make sure our schemes work for all farms.
So it's not just about observing their behaviour when shown a prototype service or work-in-progress.
It's also about asking for their views on how prototypes, works-in-progress and policy decisions will affect their lives. Co-design is a partnership, more than it is a process.
Talking to people helps us learn
One of the things I've learned from speaking to farmers is that there's no such thing as "a typical farm". You can have a wide variety of personal, financial, agricultural and environmental circumstances in just a few square miles; neighbouring farms can have very different experiences.
It's important that we listen to as many voices and views as possible.
We cannot promise to make everyone happy, all of the time. But co-design helps us understand more of those individual circumstances, and respond as best we can.
It’s also a useful way to involve many different sorts of people, with different interests. Of course we’ll be talking to farmers, but not just farmers. There are many others who will be affected by agricultural transition, such as landowners, inspectors, vets, advisers, and many more. My colleague Neville Cavendish, Head of Co-design for the Future Farming and Countryside Programme (Defra), will have more to say about this in another blog post soon.
Building faster and building better
Co-design helps us move faster: from the point that we identify a problem, to our ability to stand up a prototype and begin to test and learn. Co-designing with people helps us understand the real-world impact of a decision. The earlier we can involve them in the process, the sooner we learn and the sooner we can work on improvements.
Co-design also helps us build better: if we don’t meaningfully involve our users in our work, we will risk building things that don’t work for them. We might fail to solve real problems, missing things and messing things up. Getting people involved in co-design doesn't just help us spot what's wrong, it also helps us find the right improvements.
Co-design can feel scary at first
Introducing co-design can raise expectations that we might not be able to meet. But it also helps us understand the perspectives of people affected by our work.
So there's a balance to strike. We strongly believe that co-design is the right approach, and that using it will help us avoid a lot of pitfalls along the way. But it's not a panacea, it won't solve every problem.
We've already started running co-design sessions, and we’ll tell you more about some of them in another blog post soon. There are many more sessions planned in 2021. Keep an eye on this blog for more details.