Don’t Break Down Your Silos – Master Them

Trying to get rid of silos doesn’t actually achieve anything

In my last role at the Department for Work and Pensions, my job was to bring new voices, new techniques, and new ideas into the policy development process.

My team operated as an internal consultancy, coaching and advising policy teams on how to practise Open Policy Making.

One of the biggest challenges I faced in that role was overcoming operational disconnect — the lack of contact and understanding between the people making policy decisions about services, and the people delivering those services.

It is a common but very complex problem and something that we discuss regularly in the design community. I am always struck by the number of people who, without really researching or understanding the issues, confidently proclaim, “we need to break down the silos between teams”.

Why breaking down silos misses the point

To me, “we need to break down silos,” has become something of a middle management parody, like “what we need is some blue sky thinking,” or “we need to think outside the box”.

Now and again it takes root as a strategy. A project team is put to work for a few months, boxes and lines move on the organisation chart and nothing really changes. The silos are still there, they just look a bit different.

And by the way, I’m not criticising those project teams or their work. I’m sure they always do the best they can with the information and circumstances they have at the time.

The problem is much deeper: silos are inevitable.

In The Silo Effect, Gillian Tett says, ‘the modern world needs silos, at least if you interpret that word to mean specialist departments, teams and places. The reason is obvious: we live in such a complex world that humans need to create some structure to handle this complexity.’

So instead of breaking silos down, we should focus on mastering them.

To solve our operational disconnect problem in policy teams, my team and I resisted the temptation to draw a new organogram, and instead opted for a more anthropological approach.

We interviewed 73 policymakers, surveyed even more, and observed dozens by partnering with them on real life policy problems. In that time, we gathered 30 priceless insights about people working in policy roles and they shaped our team’s whole approach.

A whiteboard with research notes from interviews with policymakers

Understanding policymakers and the context of their work

Here are 6 insights from our work with policy teams that people usually find most interesting and helpful.

1) Policymakers are very collaborative

The role of a policymaker involves collaborating with many people from inside and outside government.

They work very closely with ministers, analysts and lawyers, and they often have excellent links with charities, industry groups and other government departments too.

Policymakers recognise that their network of contacts could be even broader, and should include colleagues building and delivering services to users.

The barriers to this are often quite practical, like difficulty finding the right people to work with and not understanding the language or ways of working in digital teams.

2) Policymakers operate in an extremely high pressure environment

Policymakers are in regular contact with ministers, who drive the pace of policymaking and dictate timescales. Policymakers are rarely in a position to determine their own priorities.

Urgent, unplanned tasks — like answering Parliamentary Questions and meeting short-notice briefing requests — happen on a daily basis and generally take precedence over everything else.

Policymakers need to balance many (often conflicting) demands, which means user needs must either support or compete with heavyweight factors like politics, political strategy and finance to be a priority.

3) Policymakers are wary of talking to users directly

Policymakers recognise the value of listening to users when developing policy options. This is often done through charities and representative bodies or using the formal public consultation process. And it is usually done once ideas have been formed and evaluated internally.

Very few policymakers engage directly with the public. They worry about things like reputational risks, policy sensitivities, and establishing a ‘representative sample’ of views.

In particular, policymakers worry about raising users’ expectations that significant change might happen as a result of their engagement.

4) Policymakers place a high value on research and evidence

When we asked policymakers what success looked like in their roles many of them said they measure success by the quality of their evidence base (the information they use to provide policy advice to ministers).

Policymakers work with economists, statisticians and social researchers to get as much information as they can to inform the advice they give to ministers. They are inquisitive, forensic, and they tend to use quantitative evidence more than qualitative.

5) Policymakers do not think user-centred design is compatible with the ‘real world’ of policy

Policymakers don’t always see how user-centred service design fits with the demands of day-to-day policymaking and the outputs required to service it. User-centred service design is often seen as a luxury, rather than a necessity.

But even if this were to change, policy teams do not have the capabilities to practise user-centred design. In my experience, they only feel confident using the tools and techniques associated with service design if they have the support and guidance of user-centered design practitioners.

6) Policymakers need the protection of senior sponsorship to try something new

Policymakers work within a hierarchical structure, with formal lines of authority and a fairly rigid division of labour among people with expertise in their fields. They tend to engage in many different areas of activity, implementing plans, providing advice, and producing written reports which move up and down a hierarchy.

Within this kind of culture, it is almost impossible for people to try new things, like user-centred policy design, without senior sponsorship (permission to act from a Senior Civil Servant).

How might we master our silos?

Over the past 12 months I have been advising government departments on how to master their silos to engage policy teams. Each case is different and there isn’t a magic formula, but there are 3 steps I would always recommend from personal experience:

Do your research

We like to talk about having empathy for the people using our services, but we often treat colleagues and stakeholders as adversaries and attach all sorts of convenient assumptions and stereotypes to them. I know I have. It’s time to break that habit.

To connect with policymakers I suggest you start by building a clear understanding of them and the environment they work in — their culture, rituals, success measures, incentives, fears and attitudes.

It isn’t easy and it isn’t a quick fix, because this is a complex problem! When my team and I first did this we spent a month interviewing 47 people away from the pressure of their day job and built from there.

Add value

Once you truly understand your policy colleagues I think you will start to see things you can do to help them. Maybe you can provide user insights to support a piece of policy advice, help them map and understand a complex problem or accelerate delivery of a ministerial priority.

In my case, it was ‘external engagement’. Policy teams wanted to understand policy issues from the user’s perspective, but didn’t have the means to do it outside formal consultation. Or rather, the means were there if you knew where to find them, but they were almost too bureaucratic and outdated to use.

My team and I decided to solve this problem on behalf of our policy colleagues.

As soon as we secured a funding stream for external engagement and demonstrated our ability to facilitate large-scale ‘public engagement events’ for policy teams, my phone didn’t stop ringing!

Turn your engagement problems into design challenges

This is a mindset that most people will be familiar with, but again we only apply it to certain aspects of our work.

It’s simple. You take a problem: ‘Policy aren’t coming to our show-and-tells’, and turn it into a design challenge: ‘How can we make sure Policy know what we are doing, and give them the opportunity to influence it?’

For my team and I, this approach saw us develop a full-scale training programme! Our Policy colleagues didn’t understand the first thing about design, so our challenge was something like, ‘how might we help Policy people understand design thinking in the context of their work’.

We experimented with a few options and ended up creating a fully-funded training programme which has now been delivered to 135 policymakers from 5 government departments.

There isn’t a quick fix to master our silos

Maybe the fact that it’s time consuming and difficult is the main reason silos continue to master us. So don’t rush, approach colleagues and stakeholders with humility and a genuine collaborative spirit and you will master your silos in no time.

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