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What we mean by “co-design”

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Janet Hughes. Photo by Julia Aglionby

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 standup 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.

If you'd like to get involved in co-design, please get in touch. Send an email to

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  1. Comment by JAMES Moon posted on

    Hopefully co- design will shorten the process which normally takes 2 years to get an application process farmer friendly. Any application should be done without the need for hours of consultancy from advisors just a helping hand.

    • Replies to JAMES Moon>

      Comment by Chris Dennis posted on

      Thanks for taking the time to comment on the blog James. You’ve raised an important point; making our systems and services more user friendly is exactly why we want to co-design them with the people that use them. If you have thoughts on how we can make our application processes more accessible and less burdensome for farmers, we’d love to hear your ideas. You can drop our Co-design team an email using the address above.

      • Replies to Chris Dennis>

        Comment by JAMES Moon posted on

        Hopefully I am on the list for co design. As a farmer and farm consultant the present system for Basic Payments could be used on an annual basis I to keep track of stewardship schemes better than the 5 year schemes Most farmers forget which fields are which for a 5 year scheme. Also it gives tenants on shorter tenancies the chance to participate.

  2. Comment by Viv Lewis posted on

    Is it really possible to do genuine co-design in a pandemic and lockdown?

    It seemes to me what we are getting is managed and controlled design and managed and controlled consultation. Our views are sought on the near final design/protypes, but we have no idea whether we are listened to and our ideas taken on board as there is no feedback. Its feels neither inclusive nor participative at the moment.

    • Replies to Viv Lewis>

      Comment by Chris Dennis posted on

      Hi Viv. Thanks for visiting the blog and commenting. Our recent workshops have shown us that co-design in a pandemic is possible. We've found that working online with digital tools can actually enhance it. For example, we're able to include more people from all over the country in the same 'room' to talk farming policy! We're still learning as we go, adapting to working remotely and making sure there are a range of ways for people to participate. As we expand our use of co-design out across the programme, we want to make sure we’re getting it right, so we really value your feedback.
      Different parts of the programme are at different stages of delivery and so the extent and nature of co-design work varies. Regardless of the area or stage of delivery, we want to involve users in the policy design process.
      Workshops are just one way of the ways we're doing co-design, so I'm keen to find out more about your experience and get your thoughts on how we can improve. Feel free to use the email in the blog post and I'll make sure I get it.


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