Improving Public Policy

David Halpern is an interesting character. Originally an advisor to Tony Blair’s Labour government he went on to establish the U.K.’s Behavioural Insights for David Cameron’s Conservative government. His CV makes sense to me given what he specializes in. His aim is to make government policy better. The politicians decide what should be done and Halpern tries to ensure it is done efficiently and effectively.

The reason why Halpern doesn’t get caught constantly in ideological problems is that most people can agree on many government aims regardless of where they are on the political spectrum. These areas of common cause include such things as collecting taxes that are due, making programs to get the unemployed a job more effective, and improving student learning. I’d agree with Halpern when he says that: “If we’re going to introduce a tax break to encourage businesses to invest in R&D, I think that very few people would consider it wrong to ensure that the communications about this tax break should be as clear and simple as possible” (Halpern, 2015, page 308).

The good (and bad) news is that government often hasn’t used much testing in the past. This means that the gains for improving communications etc.. are pretty easy to find. The key thing that is required is humility from experts. These need to admit they don’t know everything up front to motivate the need for a test.

Even when the need to test is recognized there are of course some challenges to improving policy this way. Most notably in the real world (as opposed to university laboratories) the researcher doesn’t have full control given they can’t make sure everything is just right in the field. “… field trials have to incorporate pragmatic compromises, and the researchers have to use statistical controls to iron out the imperfections” (Halpern, 2015, page 203). Field tests often aren’t perfect but this does not mean that they aren’t useful.

To my mind tests are a great (and bi-partisan) way to improve public policy. To see the benefits just consider where we are without testing. When a change is adopted how do we decide what exact change to make? He says “..without systematic testing, this is often little more than an educated guess.” (Halpern, 2015, page 328). If we want to move policy beyond educated guesses we need to run more trials and at least do what we can all agree on as effectively as possible.

Read: David Halpern (2015), Inside the Nudge Unit: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference, Random House