Making Policy Better

Part Six – It Ain’t What You Do; It’s The Way That You Do It

How to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink by actively encouraging criticism and critique

Part Six in Paul Dolan’s six-part series ‘Making Policy Better

As well as being a song by Bananarama and Fun Boy Three from 1982, the title of this piece is also the title of a paper I co-authored in 2007. The paper highlighted the importance that members of the public place on how policy decisions are made as well as the consequences of those decisions. Whatever the outcomes of the policies in response to the pandemic – and however we weigh them against one another – we care about the processes by which some profound decisions, such as closing schools and strict social distancing measures, were made.

I distinctly remember waking up on 24 March 2021 and thinking about some of the kids in my own children’s school who were being asked to stay at home when school, and not home, provided them with basic levels of care and attention. I was concerned about the harms we were inflicting on these children, but I was most concerned by how the decisions to inflict those harms were being made.

I would love to be wrong about this, but I doubt that anyone involved in advising and deciding on closing schools had any first-hand experience with the most disadvantaged children in the UK. Even without that experience, how much of a role did the Department for Education play in weighing up the benefits of reducing mortality risks for mostly older people against the costs to children’s welfare and increases in inequality of educational attainment and social development?

With a broader range of voices around the table, the government might have reached a different decision – or perhaps not. But either way, their choices would have been better informed, and I would have much more trust in them. And I’m not talking only about decisions regarding schools, of course. The lockdown has impacted lonely people, those with mental health problems, those at risk of domestic abuse, and so on.

We need to trust the people making the decisions in order to trust in what they decide. This is a more likely outcome if they reflect the diversity of the people they represent. Think about UK decision-makers: With rare exception, they and their advisors have been people in or around their 50s. This is precisely the age when we are most scared of dying. So, the psychological benefits from reducing COVID risks are the greatest amongst the middle-aged people who are most closely involved in recommending and implementing virus suppression policies.

At the same time, the costs of mandated non-pharmaceutical interventions (MNPIs) are lowest for those in or around their 50s. Many middle-aged people can work from home and will gladly avoid a miserable commute. They are also not as lonely as younger people, are more likely to be married, and are not reliant on public activities – like clubbing – to meet their social needs. The decisions we make as private citizens or public officials can never be completely cleansed of self-interest, and so it should concern us all that these decisions that are having such a profound effect on every age group are being made by people at ages that arguably have most to gain from suppression policies – and indeed the least to lose.

Considerable attention has rightly been paid to the lack of diversity in decision-making and how better judgements are possible when a greater range of perspectives are considered. I voiced concerns over a year ago about the narrowness of the disciplinary perspectives advising government: COVID-19 represents as much an economic and social crisis as it does a health one, and yet health experts continue to dominate. I didn’t realise then just how potentially important it is to have a diverse age range involved in advising and deciding on policy.

Given the very different effects of COVID-19 itself, as well as the policy responses by age group, I am pretty sure that a consensus would have emerged to allow younger people to live as normally as possible whilst also doing more to protect older people. I could be wrong about what might have been, but the critical point is that people of all ages should inform decisions that affect people of all ages. This is one of the many lessons I hope we learn from this pandemic as we plan for future crises.

To ensure that different perspectives and experiences are represented in decision-making, a Wellbeing Commission should be immediately established, which comprises different voices, including those from advocacy groups (e.g., palliative care, education, rights of the disabled) and integrates broader citizen input ‘town hall’. Herd immunity through natural processes might not have been the best approach to deal with COVID-19. Still, herd beliefs and behaviours informed by one narrow focus (virus transmission) may well turn out to be much more harmful to human life once the pandemic is over. Therefore, the Wellbeing Commission must ensure that we avoid the pitfalls of groupthink by actively encouraging criticism and critique.

Once we are into the quantification of benefits and harms, we need a scientific Wellbeing Impacts Agency. This body should bring together a range of subject matter experts who have in-depth knowledge of various data sources across policy areas. Their tasks will be to:

  • synthesise diverse knowledge by mapping available data onto WELLBYs; and
  • highlight the most important data gaps, thus informing priority areas for future research and data collection.

Together, these two bodies will be ready to respond to “wicked problems” characterised by radical uncertainty. They can also address ongoing challenges such as preparing for a future pandemic and how best to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They will also serve to enhance decision-making in calmer times too.

Click here to read Part Five, Capturing the Full Effects of Policy Interventions

Paul Dolan is Professor of Behavioural Science at London School of Economics and Political Science. He is the best-selling author of Happiness by Design and Happy Ever After, and the host of the new Duck-Rabbit

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