50th St. Gallen Symposium "Freedom Revisited": 7–8 May 2020


Disrupting Democracy – A Design Thinking Approach for Public Policy

Ever since the end of the Second World War, Western liberal democracies have widely been regarded as the most advanced form of national states. Open societies based on economic liberalization, representative governments and a diverse civil engagement have been praised as leading to prosperity, security and well-being for all citizens. However, today, the underlying principles of established democracies are increasingly called into question, even in former liberal role models such as the US, the UK or Germany. Right-wing populism is on the rise in many of these Western states, deliberately challenging democratic values by the exploitation of national culture, identity and the fear of “others”. The most vivid examples of these trends include Donald Trump being elected President of the US, the UK voting for Brexit after a populist Leave-Campaign and the German AfD being predicted to gain 14% in federal elections in 2017 (Infratest Dimap, January 2017). Established politicians of former “people’s parties” are increasingly failing to convince their voters of the continued value of open, inclusive and liberal societies. 

2-minute visualisation of Niesbach's disruptive idea

The causes for this imminent crisis of democracy are manifold, yet one recurring explanation is that there is a widening gap between political elites and citizens. Many people feel like their respective political leaders don’t represent their interests anymore. For example, the reputation of politicians in Germany has reached an all-time low in 2010 and thereafter with only 6% of the population saying that “politicians deserve their highest respect out of all professions”. Distrust in the political system is especially present among younger citizens, such as the so-called Generation Y. As much as 69% of young German citizens between 15 and 25 would agree to the statement that “politicians don’t care about what people like me think”. This attitude is reflected in historically decreasing voter turnouts across Western democracies, especially for younger age cohorts (e.g.: CIRCLE - Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning & Engagment, 2016; Statistisches Bundesamt, 2014).

Common responses to this sort of political frustration are either turning towards right-wing populist parties or withdrawing entirely from establishment politics, which in turn also strengthens populist movements. Both of these protest reactions are extremely worrisome for the future of Western democracies and thus have to be addressed by our political leaders. What our societies need at this point is nothing less than a disruption of current political structures, closing the gap between politicians and citizens and reviving our democracies, particularly by motivating the generations of tomorrow to engage in public policy. In the following essay, I want to propose how this disruption of democracy can be inspired by design thinking, a creative and innovative problem-solving approach applied by many successful businesses. Following this human-centered approach, I will specifically propose a civic engagement platform for German policy-making. I envision that the interaction facilitated through such a platform will help politicians to better understand the concerns of their citizens and to then co-create innovative policies that adequately address these issues. This will help political leaders to reconnect to their citizens and thus to preserve the value of our democracies in a disruptive way.


There is a widening gap between political elites and citizens.

What is Design Thinking

The concept of design thinking has originally been used to simply refer to creative strategies implemented by designers to develop new products, yet over the past decade this innovative way of thinking has been applied by many actors in the business world to better meet their customers’ needs. The basic idea of this solution-oriented process is that the human individual, a user or consumer, is always at the heart of all development stages of a new product or service. A design thinker does not jump directly from a complex problem to a possible set of solutions but rather continuously builds empathy for all stakeholders involved and develops solutions based on a comprehensive need-analysis. This reiterative process traditionally has several phases, which are illustrated in the graph below.

The Design Thinking Cycle (Design Thinking HSG, 2014)

Further important characteristics of this approach include co-creation of solutions by users and design thinkers as well as constant feedback and testing loops. Examples of companies successfully applying design thinking are Airbnb, SAP, IBM or General Electrics.

How can Design Thinking be applied to Public Policy in Germany?

In order to integrate the design thinking approach into current political structures, I first propose that the German national administration creates an innovative online-platform and a corresponding smartphone application for civic engagement. Both with respect to design and technological progress, the platform should aspire to the highest standards. To gain citizens’ trust, these online tools should not be created by a political party, but by an independent government agency specifically established for this project. I also strongly recommend that this agency does not directly employ politicians, at least in senior positions, but rather design thinking experts as well as socio-economic researchers to ensure objectivity. For example, the Hasso-Plattner-Institute of the University of Potsdam focused on design thinking solutions could help designing the website and the app following a human-centered approach. My idea is that every single German citizen can then create a socio-demographic profile on this platform, either personalized or anonymous.

Once this platform is established, political leaders can use the online tool to develop new innovative policies by continuously interacting with citizens through design thinking cycles. It seems to me that established politicians correctly identify many problems, but instead of finding appropriate solutions by directly communicating with concerned citizens, they rather immediately jump to implementing generic catalogues of policy measures. Applying design thinking would incorporate several more steps into this problem-solving process, most importantly the needfinding phase, in which individual citizens can voice their concerns, preferences and opinions through very streamlined and adaptive questions. The most value added will be generated in this needfinding phase, because the platform allows the government to collect a great amount of information from their citizens. If every person would answer just one question per day, the government could already gather much more data then what is currently possible through conventional surveys and polls. As traditional studies and forecasts have famously failed to predict citizens’ preferences during recent events, it is another advantage that the government directly receives unfiltered input.

Based on this comprehensive data, the government can better build empathy for citizens and has a stronger baseline to develop prototypes for different and innovative policy programs. During the following brainstorming phase, policy-makers could also invite active users of the platform to personally contribute their differing perspectives in order to emphasize co-creation. Consequently, promising prototype programs should not directly be applied on the federal level, but rather tested on a small scale. This will allow several feedback loops to see whether policies actually work. It makes initial programs more flexible and adaptive, as they will only be included in national legislation once they proved to meet citizen’s needs.  

In the following, I want to illustrate this reiterative process with a practical example. One of the concerns of primarily young Germans is the lacking compatibility of family and work life. In response to this problem, comprehensive federal reforms have been implemented, including investments in nurseries and all-day schools as well as financial incentives to parents. However, the practical realities are still dissatisfying for many families. There are various reasons for this persisting incompatibility, among others, parents cite the lack of flexibility of employers, the deteriorating quality of early childhood care and enduring social norms concerning parenthood (e.g.: Knauß, 2015; Siems, 2015). I do not want to suggest that these additional issues have not been taken into account at all when crafting new family policies, yet I suppose that only a limited amount of information has been collected and that the complexity of the problem has not sufficiently been explored. Only rather obvious policies using direct channels of influence have been implemented and even though they might be ineffective in reaching their goal, they are now constituted in federal laws. One example is the rather controversial “parental allowance” which created unintended incentives for some type of families.

Without going further into the specific controversies around the topic, I believe that better and more innovative policies could have been designed by using the human-centered approach and by putting a strong emphasis on needfinding and empathy-building. With the platform, the government could directly ask millions of young parents insightful questions about their preferences on family and work. Synthesizing all this big data, improves the baseline to develop innovative prototype programs that go beyond simple ideas of “full-time” and “part-time” or financial incentives, exploring e.g. indirect channels of influence through business and social norms. In a next step, these prototype programs can then be tested in selected local contexts and are continuously improved before they are introduced into national legislation.

Obviously, using this platform in the early stage of policy-making doesn’t necessarily mean that the policies designed are as innovative as the human-centered approach in itself. However, this doesn’t pose a problem, because the direct interaction between government and citizens focusing on individual needs constitutes the disruptive element of the process, which at the very least narrows the existing gap between political elites and ordinary people. Going forward other features such as online voting for national, federal and local elections, referendums as well as political education programs can be easily integrated into the platform to further strengthen civic engagement.

Once this platform is established, political leaders can use the online tool to develop new innovative policies by continuously interacting with citizens through design thinking cycles.

Why will Design Thinking for Public Policy be successful?

While I laid out my ideas for an innovative design thinking platform using the example of Germany, I strongly believe that this approach can be disruptive and successful in any representative Western democracy – in particular due to its large potential for the engagement of young people. The first critical factor for success is that the current disapproval of the political establishment does not mean that young citizens reject democracy and participation as such. On the contrary, studies conducted in Germany in 2015 show that 41% of young people between 15 and 25 years say that they are “politically interested” compared to only 30% in 2002. In fact, political participation is in transformation rather than in decline. Young people rarely get involved in traditional people’s parties or general elections anymore, yet they are looking for alternative methods of participation. The majority of young voters want more instead of less opportunity to contribute to politics. These trends promise a high take-up of the co-creation offer extended through the online platform as introduced above, especially by future generations. Secondly, the proposed platform raises concerns around data privacy and an individual’s willingness to share information. I argue that in the age of social media, public self-expression has been increasing significantly, especially for the Generation Y, thus the great majority of young people wouldn’t refuse to share personal preferences with a democratic government. Currently, much of the political self-expression already takes place on platforms such Facebook and Twitter, however e.g. close to 50% of users in the US “see social media as an especially negative venue for political discussion” due to the lack of respect and fact-based dialogue. Therefore, a neutral government platform is a great alternative to channel these political opinions and preferences in a structured and constructive way. Lastly, I believe that my design thinking approach goes back to the inherent meaning of democracy as a government by the people and for the people. I’m still convinced that there are serious political issues for which elected policy-makers have a better sense of what is good and just than ordinary citizens, in particular concerning the protection of minorities. However, the current realities of populism demonstrate that once this gap between convictions of political leaders and the preferences of people becomes too large, democracies experience crisis. This imbalance is a special challenge for established political parties, for which credibility is very valuable and who cannot just adapt their political stances to constantly changing citizen needs in a way design thinking businesses do as a response to changing customer preferences. Yet this is just another indicator that we need to break up or at least loosen traditional party structures and disrupt the way democracy is practiced. I truly think that design thinking offers a great approach to rethink the relationship between political leaders and citizens, to create opportunities for inclusive and innovative co-creation of public policy and to thus close the widening gaps dividing our societies. This innovative form of civic engagement offers a great opportunity to combat populism as well as political frustration and to revive our liberal Western democracies as we have celebrated them in past decades.