Governmentality and power in 'design for government' in the UK, 2008-2017
: an ethnography of an emerging field

  • Jocelyn Agnes Bailey

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Over the last 15 or so years, design – as a practice – has become something one does in the public sector, a methodology one might deploy in pursuing the aims of the state. This thesis is an investigation of how and why design has become relevant to, and enmeshed within, government. I identify a rapidly emerging ‘apparatus’ (an assemblage of discourse, practices, knowledge, institutions, subjects, and objects) of design for government, and dissect it to see how it works, and what it functions to achieve.

To do this, the thesis makes use of data accumulated during several years of professional practice in this field in the UK from 2008 to 2017 (from the point at which I entered the field, to the point at which I temporarily left in order to focus on research), and with a particular focus on design projects undertaken from 2015- 2017 while working for a design agency. This insider perspective is contrasted with a discourse analysis of the dominant narratives accounting for the development of the field. The methodology thus combines auto-ethnography with a ‘Foucauldian’ theoretical toolkit of discourse, technologies, practices and objects/ subjects. Building on studies that critically examine the construction of discursive formations, epistemic communities, disciplinary apparatuses, and regimes of practices, the thesis breaks away from an instrumental mode of researching and conceptualising design.

The original contribution of the thesis is, first, in treating design as a contingent, mobile, and discursively constructed idea through methodologically blending an insider ethnography of design with a theoretical account based in governmentality. And, second, through investigating and countering many of the existing claims made in design research for this practice and its instrumental value to the public sector.

The study finds that ‘design’ in such a context has been discursively and practically re-modelled and deployed to respond to, and align with, a dominant political dogma about the necessity of reforming the machinery of state to become more innovative. The popular claims made for the value and effectiveness of ‘design for government’ do not adequately capture its observable mechanisms and effects: ‘performances of change’ divert attention from the lack of it, users are not understood but invented, and, far from being innovative, the technologies of ‘design for government’ mainly reproduce the logics and ideologies coursing through its environment. Its most substantive achievement is the production of itself as a field of knowledge and practice, through the continual recruitment of new acolytes. In this way, the apparatus of ‘design for government’ can be said to have profound governmental effects. Not only – or even primarily – on the ‘end user’, but on the designers and civil servants re-modelling their professional selves in its image, and it does this predominantly via a positive strategy of seduction. Overall, the apparatus functions to achieve an embodiment of the political managerial critique of bureaucracy, an ever-expanding market for design and those calling themselves designers, and the colonisation of yet another domain by the contemporary mythology that is design.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Brighton
SupervisorDamon Taylor (Supervisor), Guy Julier (Supervisor) & Peter Lloyd (Supervisor)

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