Article / Policy Innovation
Published: 18.10.2021

As time goes by, the challenges the world is facing grow more complex: technological transitions, worldwide geopolitical earthquakes, and climate changes. COVID-19 crisis in the past two years has exacerbated the complexity and catalyzed the global changes. Such drastic and rapid transitions mean the conventional policy-making processes—inflexible, centralized, and non-participatory—no longer effectively respond to the current state of the world. Countries are looking for new policy-making methods. One particular approach is gaining popularity: Policy Lab.

Policy Lab is an innovation space that deploys new tools, technology, and techniques to design policies and is open to trial and error. It serves as a ground for integrative policy design where collaborations between government agencies, private sector, civil society, and the public happen. Policy Lab is fundamentally people-centered, an open approach where citizens can participate in policy design. People of today are calling to be more involved in setting directions on the local and national level and demanding policies that genuinely respond to their needs.

Some governments have started adopting the Policy Lab approach, such as UK Policy Lab under the UK government and Innovation Lab under Singapore’s Public Service Division. Each might differ in specific details, depending on their tasks and operational structures.

The first Policy Lab in Thailand was officially founded in September last year, titled Thailand Policy Lab.

Thailand Policy Lab–born out of the complexity of the world
“Thailand Policy Lab is a collaboration between UNDP and Office of the National Economic and Social Development Council (NESDC). As several developing countries, including Thailand, face increasingly diverse, complex, and fast-changing challenges, the conventional policy process no longer suffices in driving the country to meet its goals. At the same time, citizens are becoming more progressive due to better education and global exposure. They want to see more developments in the country. With these two concurrent phenomena, an organization that can address the challenges at their core and respond to people’s need is in urgent demand,” said Renaud Meyer, Resident Representative of UNDP in Thailand.

Renaud Meyer, Resident Representative of UNDP in Thailand

“With these two concurrent phenomena, an organization that can address the challenges at their core and respond to people’s need is in urgent demand.”

Suriyon Thunkijjanukij, Senior Advisor of NESDC, spoke of the collaboration between NESDC and UNDP in this initiative, “Thailand Policy Lab is established as a NESDC’s initiative, in collaboration with UNDP, which has access to a worldwide network of knowledge and experts. UNDP supports us with various areas of expertise, whereas NESDC gets on operative levels. With our mechanism that connects with government agencies, we will be able to enhance their capacity to adopt the new policy-making tools.”

Mr. Meyer further stated on the collaboration: “UNDP is an international organisation with offices in over 130 countries. While each country faces its unique challenges, some might share similarities or are transferable. For instance, Thailand might not have encountered a challenge that other countries are facing, but it could come to be in the future. When that happens, I can reach out to offices in other countries that have had an experience with the issue and discuss finding a solution. At the same time, we can bring experiences or success in Thailand to share with other countries; the world will also benefit from Thailand Policy Lab.

“UNDP is not going to instruct on what Thailand Policy Lab has to do. Thailand Policy Lab can design its own operation. What we do is provide the knowledge on Policy Lab approach of the policy-making process. It will be up to Thailand Policy Lab to apply it,” said Mr. Meyer.

Still in its beginning, Thailand Policy Lab comprises 5 members. One is Nitasmai Ransaeva, Head of Thailand Policy Lab, who described the team as young professionals whose diverse experiences and expertise neatly complement each other.

Sharing her perspective of Thailand Policy Lab, Nitasmai said, “Thailand Policy Lab is established in search of solutions to the challenges we are facing today, as their complex and multidimensional nature requires more than a singular method. It aims to bring an innovative approach to address the challenges we face.

“From what we see, other agencies that utilise innovative approach mainly focus on social innovation. Less implemented is policy innovation, and those who adopt it only adopt partially. This is where Thailand Policy Lab stands out: we introduce innovation into every process, from policy design, experimentation to policy proposal.

“This is where Thailand Policy Lab stands out: we introduce innovation into every process, from policy design, experimentation to policy proposal.”

“Our mission is not to remodel the policy process but rather to apply innovation in each step. For example, during the public hearing or survey stage, we introduce new tools e.g., Social Listening, Deep Listening, or System Mapping. The results from these tools are then analysed by System Thinking, Foresight, Portfolio Design, or other tools. These tools and techniques enable a more expansive understanding of a problem, which leads to an answer that best addresses the needs,” said Nitasmai.

Open for Trial and Error–Participation: the basis of policy design at Thailand Policy Lab

Indeed, for any given policy to come into finalisation, more than one process is involved. Thailand Policy Lab has to employ combinations of policy-making methods. Typically, we begin with Problem Identification, followed by Portfolio of Solutions. A possible solution is put to the test in a limited area; it will be implemented to a broader extent if the trial has a positive outcome.

Nitasmai exemplified, “Let’s say we work on youth issues. First, we must identify the most important problems. Then research into the details and dimensions, which we collect from Social Listening process, such as talking to the youths or scanning and collecting their opinions and voices shared on online platforms. After that, we develop options through youth engagement. We might facilitate a hackathon, brainstorming for solutions and analysing the possibility to implement them. A possible solution is applied in a Sandbox to test its effectiveness and find room for adjustment. If the solution works, we make a recommendation to the government to put that policy into effect in other areas.”

The final step–putting policy to test in a real-world setting before actual implementation–is Thailand Policy Lab’s distinctive strength.

“Thailand has never had a public policy lab, as in, policies were never put to test before real implementation. Our policy-making process has included ‘Pilot Project’, but the problem is we do not handle failures well, so there was no experimentation process. Policy Lab opens to experimentation. This is the main departure from the conventional policy-making process,” said Suriyon.

Suriyon Thunkijjanukij, Senior Advisor of NESDC“If we adopt the Policy Lab thinking, we will understand how little things can start a ripple effect and determine the success or failure of a policy. Therefore, we need to test it before applying it to a larger portion. We need to put the whole process to the test, from the beginning to completion. This is the importance of Policy Lab,” added Suriyon.

Experimentation is not the only prominent feature. Looking into the whole process that Nitasmai described, it is clear that throughout its policy development process, Thailand Policy Lab opens for participation of affected citizens in every step.

“Our core is Citizen Engagement. This goes beyond referendum. We must involve all parties in the policy design process, find a solution together. By including the lived experience of the people in policy design, we are able to respond more accurately to the main issue,” said Nitasmai. She explained that social media had become a crucial tool in drawing citizen engagement, such as providing a platform to disseminate online surveys. It is accompanied by other methods to ensure the participation of people from various demographic groups.

Citizen engagement benefits the policymakers, enabling them to design a policy that more accurately responds to the needs. At the same time, people also benefit from it. In this fast-changing world, Thai citizens are becoming more active and wanting to see a leaping growth in society. They no longer wait for the government to think for them. They are demanding to be included in designing and making decisions for the future of their society.

“Our concept is to democratise the decision making and policy design process, for people to come and voice their opinions on the issues. No matter what you do or how much you earn, we believe everyone has a point to exchange and collaborate,” said Mr. Meyer.

“Our concept is to democratise the decision making and policy design process.”

“We must root out the idea that people are clueless or that some people are of no help. Everyone has their purpose. For example, following the Nepal earthquake, we planned to rebuild the destroyed houses. At one point, it dawned on us that all people coming to this project, whether architects or engineers are all men. No women were involved, although they spent even more time at home. They know inside and out the function and purpose of each part of the house and where they should be located. We brought women to participate, and the results were noticeably improved,” Mr. Meyer added.

“Policy Lab can help reform the country because decision-makers traditionally are the elites,” said Suriyon.

“What is often overlooked in policy-making is how the policy afflicts people. And people who were afflicted, of course, want to get involved in the government’s policy design or solution. Most people might not have been trained or educated in the policy-making field and do not express in an academically appropriate manner, but their sufferings and expectations are real,” said Suriyon.

“Social Listening can enhance the psychological interpretation of people and reveal their feelings or expectations. This must be accompanied by a development value that sees people as human, respects citizenship and their legitimate right to participate in designing policies. They could speak a different language or are not well-versed in academic jargon, but we must understand them. This is the core of Policy Lab, which will lead to a more effective bureaucracy, a more people-centered policy-making process. Citizen will not be considered as triviality in the process anymore,” said Suriyon. 

A response to the generation of active youth

As people’s voices become a focus, Thailand Policy Lab has to handle various challenges, for each person faces different problems and has different perspectives. To consider an issue, it should meet both NESDC’s National Economic and Social Development Plan and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) driven by UNDP.

Nitasmai revealed that Thailand Policy Lab has initially set 4-5 main issues, such as inequality, digital disruption, climate change, tourism, gender equality, and a recent pilot issue: youth.

Youth is the issue that came to NESDC’s attention. It is one of the key issues included in the 13th National Economic and Social Development Plan that is due to begin in 2022. The first major challenge that NESDC forwarded to Thailand Policy Lab, it is in the survey process to find issues that are considered most urgent or relevant by the youth.

This issue was raised amidst the social and political atmosphere that is becoming sensitive to the generation gap, a major challenge in Thai society. Young people are demanding that their voices be listened to. As social listening and public participation are central to its approach, Thailand Policy Lab could be a space to listen to the current demands of the young generation.

“Youth’s ideas and those of people in control of the country’s economy and society did not go along in the past. The discrepancy is vast. For Thailand to move forward, it is imperative that they must be involved, and their voices must be heard,” said Suriyon.

Nitasmai agreed. “Youths are the driving force. They can help us find solutions to several issues. They are the country’s future, are enthusiastic and curious about what happens around them, and are ready to call out on issues. Therefore, bringing them to engage from the beginning, to share the challenges they face, will create a sense of ownership towards society. Starting from the youth is a great beginning as it has a potential to grow into other aspects.”

“I am glad that young people today become increasingly aware and active in public policy, as they are facing multitudes of challenges. At the same time, they might not have a complete understanding of the government’s policy development because they do not see the whole process. They only see that the implemented policies do not respond to their needs or do not improve their quality of life. By engaging them, they will get to see the process and limitations of policy making. They will learn that reaching a conclusion that satisfies everyone is not easy. By letting them in on the process, they will have a better understanding of what is or is not possible,” said Nitasmai.

Similarly, Suriyon said “they should get to see the complex nature of development process in the real world. However, the policymakers must also try to understand them, that what they have to say is not silly. Do not dismiss them for they have lesser experience. Lots of their concerns are reflective of the reality today, which is crucial to country development. We have to discern that signal.”

“Do not dismiss them for they have lesser experience. Lots of their concerns are reflective of the reality today, which is crucial to country development.”

Break the bureaucracy barrier: elevate Thai policy to the ASEAN model

Thailand Policy Lab merely turned six months since its formation, and most projects are in their infancy. It is too soon to evaluate the success of the first Policy Lab of Thailand, whose path ahead is long and challenging.

“I want Thailand Policy Lab to inspire not only policymakers or innovators but also general people. We need them to engage in policy development and create a truly citizen-driven policy,” said Nitasmai.

Apart from public policy development, Thailand Policy Lab aims to cultivate capabilities among public policy workers, whether in the government, private, or education sector, and establish a networking platform for innovators to exchange knowledge. The latter has been carried out, such as knowledge sharing event on policy innovation with Thailand Institute of Justice, and much more to come.

Thailand Policy Lab does not limit its goals to Thailand. It also aims to become a model to ASEAN member countries, a regional source of knowledge and resources where they can learn and adopt the method, as ASEAN nations are facing similar challenges.

Of course, before achieving this ambition, Thailand Policy Lab must prove itself successful at the national level first.

“Our highest expectation is, parts of the bureaucracy will become skilled in using the Policy lab tool to effectively design policies. Thailand Policy Lab should be recognised as a proper tool to apply to national public policy development,” said Suriyon.

But bringing down the numerous obstacles so rooted in Thai bureaucratic culture is not simple. Introducing the concept of the policy development process and organisational culture in line with Policy Lab, a foreign concept to Thai bureaucracy, could be the biggest challenge to Thailand Policy Lab.

“Is this a challenge to us? Personally, I think there are both old-school government officials and younger officials. We have many creative, younger officials. I believe the new generation of government officials can help further our objectives and believe that the collaboration of NESDC helps clear the path to some extent,” said Nitasmai.

“I believe the new generation of government officials can help further our objectives and believe that the collaboration of NESDC helps clear the path to some extent.”

Meanwhile, Suriyon said “a benefit of having Thailand Policy Lab as a NESDC unit is that our agency can accept any issue and can work with any agency. They are willing to listen to us because we are considered a neutral agency that has no interest of our own, focusing only on public interest.

“With that said, Policy Lab cannot be disassociated from bureaucracy. We must admit that bureaucracy remains the key mechanism on public policy; this is true for any country. Thai bureaucracy has its systematic problems that we need to consider. As a result, we established our Policy Lab as a slightly separate function, allowing its freedom from certain bureaucratic restrictions. Nevertheless, during the design, analysis, and experimentation process, Thailand Policy Lab still needs to work with the responsible agency,” said Suriyon.

Despite a level of independent functions under the Thai bureaucratic system, Thailand Policy Lab is not without challenges. From Meyer’s view, a major obstacle that Thailand Policy Lab must eliminate is the mindset and working style that are embedded within the Thai bureaucracy.

“One of the main challenges is the conservative mindset. Convincing people to try a new, more challenging thing, be it mindset or working style, is not easy,” said Meyer. “We can invite them to join trainings or events organised by Thailand Policy Lab, but if they come with a closed mind like a fully soaked sponge, we cannot get to them. This is an important obstacle to us.”

“What I want to do now is encourage a work culture where everyone constantly comes up with questions or challenge to themselves, and a work culture that promotes more collaborations,” said Meyer.

“I should emphasise that citizens, organisations, and governments are facing increasingly complex challenges. Old formulas cannot tackle those new problems; they require new ideas and new actions,” said Meyer.

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