Articles New Alliance publication: Better Public Services Through Experimental Government

New Alliance publication: Better Public Services Through Experimental Government

This new paper from the Alliance argues that governments need to adopt an experimental ethos. What does this mean? It means systematically testing out policies on a smaller scale so that impact can be measured, successes replicated and failures limited. An experimental approach would not supplant the role of values and beliefs in government, rather testing things out would supplement political decisions with information on what works. This blog provides a summary to this fascinating and highly relevant new paper.

How do we know, in advance, that a social policy will work? Often the honest answer is we don’t because, unlike other areas where experimentation is gaining currency, in social policy, we don’t test things out. The mounting pressures on public services are well known but needed transformations are hamstrung by the absence of an experimental ethos in government.

Experimental government is systematic

Experimental government is not about trying things out in a haphazard way. It requires a systematic approach to testing things out. It means acknowledging that the answers won’t necessarily be known from the outset, accepting an element of risk and the possibility of failure.

Experimental government embraces and limits failure

This is challenging for governments to accept when failures and u-turns are lampooned in the press and punished at the ballot box. Yet the advantage of an experimental approach is that new ideas can be tested out and if they fail, their scale and possible damage are limited. Polices can be researched and adjusted before being rolled allowing for the efficient use of public funds and the maximising of public good.

Rolling out policies without testing means governments are ‘flying blind’

This goes to the heart of the ethical case for governments to experiment. Rolling out policies without evaluation or trialling means that we are flying blind. In effect, governments experiment on whole populations without the benefit of learning what works and, as importantly, what doesn’t.

Happy bedfellows: values, beliefs and experimentation

Our approach leaves room for values and beliefs – which should always be at the core of government – while arguing that there is room for experimentation if not in policy formation then in its delivery. Strong evaluation techniques allow governments to balance their need to deliver policies and respond to political pressures. They supplement political decisions with information on what works.

Initial recommendations

Several changes need to take place to facilitate the adoption of an experimental approach to government. Initially targeting policy areas where greater innovation is merited and politically feasible, the paper recommends that more ambitious and bold experiments are set up on nationally important issues. That these experiments use the most robust evaluation methods available.

The paper argues that, alongside more experimental activity, governmental culture needs to change with leaders embracing risk and rewarding success. This new perspective on experimentation will need to be bolstered by the right institutional support and changes in working practices that will see researchers and government officials working closely together to co-produce experiments.

Within government a ‘learn as you go’ philosophy needs to be adopted. This philosophy will not presume policies to be set in stone and will encourage government officials to seize opportunities for experimentation. Finally, a wider public debate on the importance of experimentation, and the benefits it can bring, needs to be encourage.

The limits and barriers to experimental government

Even with these changes, there are some areas of policy where this approach is just not right. Where decisions need to be taken swiftly, based on political instinct. There are also other barriers that need to be managed including the public’s distrust of governments experimenting on people, the perceived cost of trials and mismatch between the time it takes to get the results from a pilot and the political timetable. Despite these issues, now is the time for experimental government.

The challenges governments must navigate mean that ‘business as usual’ is no longer good enough.

You can download the full paper here.