Ben Holliday

Vertical lines and loose boundaries

“It’s surprising how frequently policymakers can be found solving the wrong problem – a superficial one, a symptom rather than a cause – or a problem perceived in one way by the outside world but totally differently by those actually experiencing it”

Steve Hilton, More Human

I spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between policy, service delivery and design when working in government. It’s good to see that movements like #oneteamgov are now starting to ask more serious questions about how policy and service design can work together with a common purpose.

In my last job as Head of User Centred Design at DWP Digital (part of the Department for Work and Pensions) I came to the conclusion that the role of policy teams in government should be to draw clear boundary lines.

Policy doesn’t need to start with all the answers but it does need to set a clear direction that starts to ask the right questions. This is sometimes described as the policy intent.

To draw clear boundary lines means to constrain the focus of a problem space. The outcomes of government policy in society are then found beyond these boundary lines.

If you want to take this a step further then think of these boundary lines as horizon lines (vertical lines). We know that there’s always something beyond the boundary of government policy so it’s important to recognise that a whole world exists beyond what you can see from where you’re standing as a policy maker.

This is about recognising that there’s always a world that you’re shaping though your decisions, for better or for worst.

The shape of the problem

“A strategy is a plan for a desired outcome with a set of constraints”

Farrah Bostic

The problems and priorities of government come in different shapes and sizes. There are small problems, big problems, and there are bigger problems.

Policy teams get to draw the shape of each of these boundary lines. Acknowledging that someone has to determine the size, shape and namely, the priority this places of solving a particular set of problems.

My view of service design is that it must learn to work within the boundaries of policy. It can focus on parts of big problems, or underlying components of a set of problems, but always understanding each set of constraints.

To succeed, service design needs these constraints and also a clear focus on all the potential outcomes the exist beyond the boundaries of a problem space.

This way I think it’s possible for policy teams to shape and guide service delivery. To be clear, this means working with those best placed to put human-centred design at the forefront of how services are designed and delivered.

The shape of strategy

In the game of cricket, traditionally, the boundary (the edge of the field of play) is marked by a boundary rope.

A cricket pitch is just an open field until you put down the boundary rope. These are loose boundaries.

Without any boundary lines you don’t know how big the field of play is.

A cricket boundary line.
Loose boundaries. A cricket boundary line made of rope

I’ve seen this with design teams where, without constraints, it’ possible to spend months working without the focus needed to understand a specific problem space. This might sometimes have value (think broad and in-depth research assignments), but it could also prove to be a costly distraction (both in terms of time and money invested in a project or service).

To be effective, strategy should be a process of marking clear boundaries for teams, understanding the outcomes that everyone is working towards. These are all legitimate and important design constraints.

Just like in the game of cricket boundary lines that aren’t fixed seem to work the best. They encourage a process of learning, working through different sets of questions. A process of doing and not just thinking, where the size and shape of of the space we’re working in can change, at least subtly.

Because the strategy is not the solution

Sometimes the constraints we apply to service design in government are more loosely defined. More like a process of marking lines in the sand.

Lines is the sand eventually get washed away. It doesn’t make them any less important.

All boundary lines should be thought about as temporary. Things that we accept will move or be replaced, often multiple times. The potential is there if government departments can find ways to make policy making more agile through delivery. Design constraints that can be reframed or revisited.

But who ‘owns’ the solution?

I’m certain that there will be much more discussion about how government finds the best, or most effective, solutions to policy problems.

Maybe this isn’t about a service design versus policy makers argument or the push to move away from ‘digital’ only teams and thinking.

For now, I think we all have a duty to think more carefully about the constraints we create and share.

The size and the shape of the problem is best served by vertical lines and loose boundaries.

This is my blog where I’ve been writing for 18 years. You can follow all of my posts by subscribing to this RSS feed. You can also find me on Bluesky, less frequently now on X (formally Twitter), and on LinkedIn.