UK turns to science to test new policies

2012-07-04 20:34


Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

London - Would you pay a fine more promptly if you received a personalised text message reminder? Would you settle your accounts sooner if you got a letter from the taxman saying most people in your area had already paid up?

As austerity hits government spending in Britain, academics are helping policymakers answer questions like these, applying scientific method to improve efficiency and squeeze every last drop out of departments' limited budgets.

Randomised controlled trials - where scientists give one groups a placebo and another group the new intervention being tested, then watch for any difference - have been used for decades in medicine and are now starting to appear in the corridors of power.

"In medicine it is considered to be almost perverse not to do such a test. You'd be required to subject a medicine to a trial like this before introducing it to a market," said Owain Service, Deputy Director of the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office, which helps the British government put policies into action.

"In areas like international development it's increasingly prevalent. Foreign governments say: we want to know if the money that we're spending is having the effect that we desire of it. The best way of understanding that is to run a randomised controlled trial.

"Essentially what we're saying is that there's no reason why large areas of public policy in the developed world can't also use this approach."

The Behavioural Insights Team, led by experimental psychologist Dr Laura Haynes, was set up two years ago to build on growing evidence from behavioural economics and psychology that subtle changes in policies can have big impacts.

Reminders pay

In a report published in June, the Behavioural Insights Team recommended more policymakers take a leaf out of scientists' books and use randomised controlled trials to determine if a policy works.

It cited one study that had already looked into the impact of text messages on people who owed court fines.

The trial found that sending a reminder text significantly increased the likelihood of prompt repayment, while personalising the text could bring in an estimated further £3m a year at minimal cost if rolled out nationally.

The team is now working with job centres to look at testing back-to-work schemes - signing up one group of workers to a new programme and comparing their employment prospects with another group that carried on with the existing one.

The concept has its critics, too, the report acknowledged. Some politicians told researchers the tests were too expensive - and that they worried about the moral implications of depriving one group of people of a potentially helpful policy, just to set up a control group.

The report argued the benefits of testing outweighed the possible costs, and it was better to deprive a small number initially than spend money on a scheme that was ineffective or even harmful.

"I'd be lying if I said every government department we have discussions with embraces it," said Service.

"But there's definitely been a sense in the last twelve months or so that this is something that we can and should be doing in far greater areas of government policy."

This includes "almost every domestic department", Service said, including the Department of Business which is looking at conducting trials on access to finance for small businesses. In the limp British economy, where credit remains tight, business budgets are also hurting.

"It's more important than ever to understand what value for money different interventions are providing," Service said.

Read more on:    uk  |  science

Read News24’s Comments Policy publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining

Inside News24


Africa: Land of Billionaires!

Find out who are the richest of the richest in Africa!

Best bro movies 2014
Every man should be able to do these three things
Goalkeeper saves five penalties with his FACE!
Hottie of the day: Jesselyn

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now! - shop online today

Hot festive offers at!

Hurry! Stocks are limited. Don’t miss out. Shop Now!

Save up to 60% on toys!

Don’t miss out on this hot offer, save up to 60% on toys. While stocks last. Shop now!

Festive gifts!

Check out our awesome range of festive gifts to make everyone’s wishes come true. Shop now!

Seen something you like in our catalogue?

Find the perfect gift and save up to R5000 – As seen on the catalogue. Hurry and shop now!

Save up to R2200 on electronics! – As seen in the catalogue

Wishing for tech gadgets this festive? Save up to R2100 on hot tech products at While stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25


You may feel divided. Conflict between mind and emotions can create tension or indecision. This could lead to stressful more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.