One of the major trends within the contemporary policy scene is ‘the use of behavioural insights (BI)’ to improve policymaking. All around the world, from Qatar to England and Japan, ‘Behavioural Insights Teams’ (or ‘BITs’), ‘Nudge advisers’ and ‘Chief Behavioural Officers’ now inhabit government, seeking to infuse it with state-of-the-art knowledge and methods from the behavioural sciences. The more specific signature traits of this BI agenda appear to be its focus on new behavioural economics, nudge techniques and Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs). The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t hampered the behavioural momentum – quite the contrary: in the absence of a distributed vaccine, halting the spread of the coronavirus has very much been a behaviour change challenge, with BI being in great demand. The recent launch of dedicated ‘COVID-19 Teams’ and ‘Corona Behavioural Units’ within the UK’s and Dutch policy scene didn’t come as a surprise, and only confirmed that behavioural government is here to stay.
Intriguingly enough, though, one question about the new institutional praxis of ‘using BI’ remains not yet convincingly answered: What is it, really?
Many of us place our hopes on innovative breakthroughs and groundbreaking discoveries, believing them to be our best bet to achieve a better world. And indeed, science has produced extraordinary breakthroughs. Vaccines radically reduced the risk of death from communicable diseases. Nitrogen-based fertilisers vastly increased the production of food. Computers completely transformed how modern humans learn, work and communicate. Surely, it would seem that investing in scientific breakthroughs is the key to progress. In this spirit, social scientists develop ‘evidence-based’ practices and policies and create hierarchies of evidence to determine ‘what works’. Many believe that if only science can produce enough evidence, discoveries will follow that can change the world – if only we can effectively compel others to accept them.
The UK Parliament performs key democratic functions holding the government to account by scrutinising policy, debating legislation and providing a venue for the public to air their views through elected representatives. Despite the key role of the UK Parliament in shaping government policy, for example in recent times on Brexit and COVID-19 (though many argue Parliament should have a greater role on the latter), scholars of science-policy interfaces have rarely explored how evidence is sourced and used in legislatures.
An evidence synthesis programme commissioned by the UK’s National Institute for Health Research from two academic teams produced a diverse range of outputs and methodological insights in its first three years of operation. The programme was subsequently re-commissioned for two further cycles. Scoping the topic and involving stakeholders were key to its success.
Matthew Johnson, Elliott Johnson, Laura Webber and Kate Pickett
The COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a means of addressing a range of socio-economic insecurities. While previous trials of cash transfer schemes have often focused on low-level transfers inadequate to satisfy the needs for which the policy was originally developed, emerging pilots are moving toward a position of increasing generosity. Our multidisciplinary project, Examining the Health Case for UBI, has brought together colleagues in behavioural science, public health, epidemiology and economics to establish pathways to health impact outlined in Figure 1 below. Our work suggests the potential for significant health impact and attendant economic benefit via reduced healthcare costs and increased economic activity. The model suggests that elements of impact may only be felt if payment is set at a more generous level. This could create greater return on investment and, ironically, a more cost-effective system.
We find that the adoption of evidence-based policies in US states is driven more by Machiavellianism than altruism. Although engagement with evidence-based policymaking (EBP) can produce more efficient and effective government, it can also supply new levers of control to politicians and bureaucrats, which can be used to produce electoral benefits. An appeal to EBP can be used to centralise control of executive functions, as well as to manipulate budgets, that incentivise adoption. Further, the construction, purpose and outcomes of these laws are influenced by the institutions, parties and officeholders who craft them. Our study finds that Democratic governors, Republican legislatures and state innovativeness are significant predictors of EBP adoption in the American states.
Especially in times of crisis, the relationship between evidence and policymaking may change dramatically. The current Covid-19 crisis generated manifestations of ‘evidence informed policymaking’ in an unprecedented way, both nationally and locally. It also showed that the need to use internationally organised, reliable data for effective policy interventions has never been more urgent in times of peace. This information needs to be both profound and directly available.
In the processes of shaping evidence informed policymaking, scientists from all kinds of disciplines play a crucial role to substantiate the development of policies. An international, virtual conference taking place 15–18 December 2020 will treat the outcomes of the current crisis as input for the challenge of professionalising the structured interaction between evidence and policymaking. The current learning processes will be analysed in the context of the existing knowledge infrastructure for policymakers. Instruments for creating evidence for policymakers have recently grown with the introduction of Big Data and the development of algorithms. Another widespread trend is the use of innovative evaluation processes in order to enhance the effectiveness of policy instruments and the growth of new standards for experimental policies.
This special issue uses the lens of Creativity and Co-production to explore the meaning of ‘evidence’ and whose meaning counts. It considers what the terms ‘creating’, ‘making’ and ‘production’ mean with regards knowledge creation, sharing and putting into action. It examines the potential role that created artefacts play. For example, what are the values embodied and represented in ‘knowledge artefacts’ and what affordance and agency might they give to human actors?
Areas for discussion include:
What evidence is valid, who produces it, and how was it produced?
What is the process by which ‘evidence’ can be interrogated by others, made sense of, and acted upon?
Not acting on evidence is commonly described as the ‘evidence gap’. Could this be broken down into a series of ‘micro’ gaps between Evidence and Knowledge, Knowledge and Knowing, Knowing and Action?
What role do creative practices, tangible objects, and visual language play in bridging each of these micro gaps?
If the people decide where to go, should experts decide how to get there? In the so-called evidence-based policy (EBP) movement, the general answer is yes. EBP proponents want to strengthen the ties between science and politics.
Accounts of medical professionals performing triage due to the over-burden of healthcare systems during the COVID-19 pandemic are hard to hear. They are a microcosm of dynamics that are occurring globally, where public health authorities and governments are attempting to simultaneously understand and respond to a swiftly moving global pandemic. In this article, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control Public Health Emergency team* offer lessons from recent history for decision making during this difficult time.