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Eight ways to make government more experimental

When the banners and bunting have been tidied away after the May election, and a new bunch of ministers sit at their Whitehall desks, could they embrace a more experimental approach to government?

Such an approach requires a degree of humility. Facing up to the fact that we don’t have all the answers for the next five years. We need to test things out, evaluate new ways of doing things with the best of social science, and grow what works. And drop policies that fail.

But how best to go about it? Here are our 8 ways to make it a reality:

  1. Make failure OK. A more benign attitude to risk is central to experimentation. As a 2003 Cabinet Office review entitled Trying it Out said, a pilot that reveals a policy to be flawed should be ‘viewed as a success rather than a failure, having potentially helped to avert a potentially larger political and/or financial embarrassment’. Pilots are particularly important in fast moving areas such as technology to try promising fresh ideas in real-time. Our ‘Visible Classroom’ pilot tried an innovative approach to teacher CPD developed from technology for television subtitling.
  2. Avoid making policies that are set in stone. Allowing policy to be more project–based, flexible and time-limited could encourage room for manoeuvre, according to a previous Nesta report State of Uncertainty; Innovation policy through experimentation. The Department for Work and Pensions’ Employment Retention and Advancement pilot scheme to help people back to work was designed to influence the shape of legislation. It allowed for amendments and learning as it was rolled out. We need more policy experiments like this.
  3. Work with the grain of current policy environment. Experimenters need to be opportunists. We need to be nimble and flexible. Ready to seize windows of opportunity to experiment. Some services have to be rolled out in stages due to budget constraints. This offers opportunities to try things out before going national. For instance, The Mexican Oportunidades anti-poverty experiments which eventually reached 5.8 million households in all Mexican states, had to be trialled first in a handful of areas. Greater devolution is creating a patchwork of different policy priorities, funding and delivery models - so-called ‘natural experiments’. Let’s seize the opportunity to deliberately test and compare across different jurisdictions. What about a trial of basic income in Northern Ireland, for example, along the lines of recent Finnish proposals, or universal free childcare in Scotland?
  4. Experiments need the most robust and appropriate evaluation methods such as, if appropriate, Randomised Controlled Trials. Other methods, such as qualitative research may be needed to pry open the ‘black box’ of policies - to learn about why and how things are working. Civil servants should use the government trial advice panel as a source of expertise when setting up experiments.
  5. Grow the public debate about the importance of experimentation. Facebook had to apologise after a global backlash to psychological experiments on their 689,000 users web-users. Approval by ethics committees - normal practice for trials in hospitals and universities - is essential, but we can’t just rely on experts. We need a dedicated public understanding of experimentation programmes, perhaps run by Evidence Matters or Ask for Evidence campaigns at Sense about Science. Taking part in an experiment in itself can be a learning opportunity creating an appetite amongt the public, something we have found from running an RCT with schools.
  6. Create ‘Skunkworks’ institutions. New or improved institutional structures within government can also help with experimentation. The Behavioural Insights Team, located in Nesta, operates a classic ‘skunkworks’ model, semi-detached from day-to-day bureaucracy. The nine UK What Works Centres help try things out semi-detached from central power, such as the The Education Endowment Foundation who source innovations widely from across the public and private sectors- including Nesta- rather than generating ideas exclusively in house or in government.
  7. Find low-cost ways to experiment. People sometimes worry that trials are expensive and complicated. This does not have to be the case. Experiments to encourage organ donation by the Government Digital Service and Behavioural Insights Team involved an estimated cost of £20,000. This was because the digital experiments didn’t involve setting up expensive new interventions – just changing messages on web pages for existing services. Some programmes do, however, need significant funding to evaluate and budgets need to be found for it. A memo from the White House Office for Management and Budget has asked for new Government schemes seeking funding to allocate a proportion of their budgets to ‘randomized controlled trials or carefully designed quasi-experimental techniques’.
  8. Be bold. A criticism of some experiments is that they only deal with the margins of policy and delivery. Government officials and researchers should set up more ambitious experiments on nationally important big-ticket issues, from counter-terrorism to innovation in jobs and housing.

Who knows who will make up the next Government? Whatever the blend of politicians, ploughing on with business as usual won’t be good enough to meet 21st century challenges.

Fear of failure is understandable, when those that didn’t get in power will be seeking revenge by trashing your new policies.

But experimenting first with new ideas in order to find and grow what works best is much more likely to make a difference to the rest of us than recklessly ploughing on with untested paper policies. Even for the politicians, that way lies political trouble and a visit to Public Accounts Committee. Any new government should embrace an experimental ethos to test out new ideas and find the best ways to improve our public services.

Author

Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Oliver Quinlan

Senior Research Manager, Raspberry Pi Foundation

Oliver was a programme manager for Nesta’s digital education projects, exploring ways in which digital technologies can transform learning and teaching. He is now Senior Research Man...

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Dan Jones

Dan Jones

Dan Jones

Director, Innovation Lab

Dan was a Director in the Innovation Lab where he oversaw practical programme work on public and social innovation, with a particular focus on inclusion and mobilising citizen engage...

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Jonathan Breckon

Jonathan Breckon

Jonathan Breckon

Director, Alliance for Useful Evidence

Jonathan Breckon has 15 years experience in policy, research and public affairs.

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