My grandma with my mom - no smile, no wrinkles
My grandma with my mom – no smile, no wrinkles 😉 (@Adler)

Back in my teen years, I would roll my eyes every time my grandmother would bestow on her prophetic advice on me. Granted, her advice would make any teenager LOL in disbelief: from how to avoid wrinkles by laughing less to tips about sitting up straight on a soft sofa.

Listening is an art and the interwebs is full of zen quotes about its wisdom. In spite of its popularity, like many teenagers and their grandmothers, listening is also quite rare.

The same is true for international development.  Many agencies spend lots of time (and money) producing research, collecting data, building advocacy strategies, and running campaigns in an attempt to get the ear of policy-makers. To make things more complicated, success is often elusively defined (e.g. number of downloads of your latest research?) making influencing attempts as elusive as the ‘policy-makers’ we try to reach.

But when working with real policy-makers in two autonomous regions in Nicaragua, I’ve learned that providing ‘evidence’ on the situation of children, even when coupled with good ‘marketing,’ doesn’t necessarily translate into ‘evidence-based policies’ for children.

Dangling lots of data in front of policy-makers doesn’t mean they will actually pay attention, let alone act on it. That’s partly because we don’t always act rationally, as behavior economics would explain it (for more on this, check out the excellent 2015 World Development Report: Mind, Society and Behavior). But it’s also because of how complexity theory works, or in lay terms, politics.

Dilbert on the use of evidence for decision-making
Dilbert on the use of evidence for decision-making (@Scott Adams)

So in support of two autonomous regional governments in Nicaragua, we accepted (and embraced) these limitations and opted for a different route. Instead of the typical policy-making process where consultants do all the work and hand over beautifully written yet out-of-synch policies, which end up devoid of enough human and financial resources for implementation, we suggested a process where policy-makers did all the work (what a shocker). It was not ‘data for, but data with.’

We worked with large coalitions of government employees in both regions in Nicaragua on a policy-making process based on a Human Centered Design, an approach often used by designers, architects and quite common in Silicon Valley in the development of products and services.

Design research combines rigorous inquiry and observation with creative analysis, drawing on the tools of ethnography, journalism, and systems thinking. But most importantly: Human Centered Design humanizes the issues at hand and inspires policy-makers to design solutions that respect the rights, values and aspirations of the children they were trying to serve.

The process followed four basic steps, which started with ‘listening.’ We supported our government counterparts collect data through immersive experiences with the people they were trying to serve. They travelled over 50 hours covering almost one quarter of the country by road, rivers and sea and talked to over 700 people.

How to apply a Human Centered Design approach to policy-making
How to apply a Human Centered Design approach to policy-making (see brochure)

This time-consuming process was not necessarily aimed at just collecting ‘data,’ although questions were asked through interviews and focus groups. The main goal was to listen. And by listening, the ultimate goal was to create empathy. While this may sound like ‘fluffy stuff’ to many ‘serious’ development practitioners out there, let’s not forget this is a key technique in the private sector. If they don’t listen to what their customers want, need or value, their products won’t sell.

Conducting ethnographic research @Reboot 2012
Conducting ethnographic research @Reboot 2012

Listening was coupled with furthering understanding of the problems, which was done through a series of design synthesis techniques ranging from shadowing to conducting service trials (e.g. in some instances we had male government employees carry 30lb-backpacks to simulate a day of pregnancy!).

After almost eight months of problem-definition, the co-creation stage opened up to many different actors. We even used LinkedIn to call on architects, students, designers, MBAs, engineers to help out design “technically feasible and economically viable” solutions.

We also worked with a leading architect from a university in Rome to create amazing tools to curate these solutions and connect them to the concrete issues facing children and their families in Nicaragua. But this step was only possible once we were all on the same page regarding what was “politically” acceptable given the regional context and reality.

Creating empathy with policy-makers
Creating empathy with policy-makers (@Reboot 2012)

Truth be told. Applying a Human Centered Design to policy-making is no easy feat. It’s actually quite demanding and ‘too much co-creation’ can be chaotic. There’s not always a guaranteed path either. In the first region where this technique was introduced, the policy was fully developed but, because of a change of government, it ended not being approved. We learned many lessons from this first experience, which we applied to the second region, where the policy was unanimously approved in record time.

Applying the entrepreneur’s vitamin to policy implementation (see brochure)

This policy is now being implemented following an entrepreneurial approach. Instead of strict monitoring tables, the policy adopted a TRY-FAIL-LEARN-REPEAT cycle for its interventions. The most complex interventions will be prototyped with support from UNICEF. Learning from what has worked and continuously iterating are more important than trying to implement programs that may not work in spite of the well-intentioned policy-makers.

During my last year in Nicaragua, we’ve produced this brochure with the amazing designers from Blok. It gives a glimpse of the application of HCD in policy-making but it could easily be used for developing or improving programs and services. Appropriately titled, “I Listen,” the brochure provides an overview of the possible trajectory from public employees to public entrepreneurs through empathetic listening. My grandmother would have certainly been proud.

Designing for Children (@Camila Garay)

I'mpossible policy 2

Natalia Adler (twitter: nataliaadler19)

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