As a policy maker, my team’s starting place for working with graphic, digital and UX designers isn’t an obvious one.

But our involvement in Good Finance is the result of a long period of consideration about the realities of social investment, who is experiencing these realities and how we can make things better.

I’m part of a small central government unit responsible for social investment policy in the Office for Civil Society. Over the years we’ve been fairly instrumental but by no means alone in developing what industry insiders now call the UK’s ‘social investment market’ – although we know from the work for Good Finance that language and the term social investment itself can be part of the problem.

This blog is a run through of what led up to our work on Good Finance and what the project represents for the type of policy making we’re interested in.

Between 2010 and 2015 we worked alongside many others to establish key parts of the UK’s social investment market, like Big Society Capital which is a champion for social investment and an investor itself. Although seems obvious now, demand for social investment did not automatically follow the work to create the supply of capital into the market. We knew that some social impact organisations still struggled to identify and obtain finance that was right for them, but we didn’t yet understand what they needed.

This puzzle coincided with a growing trend inside government to bring new types of evidence to the policy world from disciplines like design. But our first steps into the world of design weren’t motivated by any associations about gloss and innovation, we wanted to understand people’s real experiences of seeking finance – in design this is often called the “user experience”. We also benefitted from the collaborative, open minded and iterative qualities that are typical of many designers that work in the public sector, including those who we’ve been lucky enough to commission at the Design CouncilSnook and The Point People.

Initially we worked with the Design Council, my former employer, on a piece of user research to understand the people and organisations that were looking for the best ways to increase their social impact. The findings were published in 2014 and they gave us a new set of narratives about social investment, like “we worked without money for a year” or more encouragingly “we built our business with investment”.

Using design for the first time can be disorientating. For a finance innovation team like ours, design felt like a similarly reforming set of approaches directed at social impact and yet it had an entirely different language and toolkit. We needed to understand better how to treat the stories and experiences that designers created or uncovered for us as legitimate evidence to inform policy work.

To move things on, we commissioned a second more practical design project in 2015 to The Point People and Snook, also publicly available. The project team worked mostly with intermediary organisations – who provide advice and finance to entrepreneurs and charities – and together they developed, tested and refined four ideas to improve the social investment market. Language, accessible information and pathways to the right investment came up repeatedly.

These concerns were shared widely and Big Society Capital responded by kicking off work on Good Finance. They put together a project group. Set off Allen from NDP and Emma from Snook working in tandem using digital and design approaches. And crucially for a design-led project, created enough headroom so that we suspended our preconceptions and instead grounded the ‘right solutions’ in user research.

After nine months, with some hitches along the way, we are about to put out the first digital products that have been developed as part Good Finance - like easier access to investors and real stories from social investees. We’ll know if they work when we can see how Good Finance is used by larger numbers of people in practice. But we do know already that the project is underpinned by huge amount of insight into people’s real behaviour, and that by using design we have a process whereby we can flex and adjust things if our first set of solutions end up not being the right ones.

In policy terms, Good Finance differs from typical delivery. The approach taken helped us all to step outside of thinking that the project was about social investment, it was actually about social impact and social investment is one of a number of ways to finance this. It placed our user groups at the centre not the end of the chain. It also forced us to put aside existing assumptions – although sometimes they were right.

But there are lots of things about using design that can feel counter-cultural, like the high-levels of ambiguity in the early stages of a project and the perfect world that it often points to vs. the complexity of implementing ideal solutions in practice. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. There are wider areas of our policy work where design principles have already had a big impact. There is also a lot more we want to do collectively, beyond the challenges of language and navigation, based on what we are learning directly from organisations that are looking to grow and asking if social investment is for them.

By Camilla Buchanan, Government Inclusive Economy Unit, The Department for Culture, Media and Sport