U-turns: why it’s sometimes better to reverse course

It’s considered a sin in politics to change your mind. Reverse a policy and you’ll fall prey to the media – see, for example, the following list of U-turns from the past UK coalition government. But good policy needs to be able to change in the face of reality. Not just small tweaks, but complete, rubber-burning, 180 degree turns. “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Maynard Keynes was supposed to have said (it’s probably apocryphal – but it rings true).

U-turns enable us to embrace a more experimental approach to government, but it requires a degree of humility. We need to face up to the fact that we don’t have all the answers – and accept that we will get things wrong. This shouldn’t stop us testing things out, using the best of social science to evaluate new ways of doing things, and growing what works.  And, if the evidence says so, drop policies that fail.

How best to go about it? 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”.

We must also avoid policies that are set in stone from the start.  Allowing policy to be more project-based, flexible and time-limited could encourage room for manoeuvre (this is according to a previous Nesta report entitled State of Uncertainty; Innovation policy through experimentation). Interestingly, the Department for Work and Pensions’ Employment Retention and Advancement pilot was designed to influence the shape of legislation – purposely allowing for amendments and learning as it was rolled out.  We need more policy experiments like this, where flexibility is hardwired in from the start.

Political savviness is also needed when it comes to experimentation. For instance, some services have to be rolled out in stages due to budget constraints. This offers opportunities to try things out locally before going national. The Mexican Oportunidades anti-poverty experiments eventually reached 5.8 million households in all Mexican states, but were trialled using Randomised Controlled Trials in just a handful of areas. In the UK, greater devolution of powers to city-regions and counties across the nation is creating a patchwork of different policy priorities and funding and delivery models – almost ‘natural experiments’. Devolution presents a real opportunity to deliberately test and compare policy implementation across different jurisdictions.

However, it must be acknowledged that experiments still need to be subject to the appropriate evaluation methods. Qualitative research can help pry open the ‘black box’ of policies – helping us learn about why and how things work. Here, civil servants should use the Cross-Government Trial Advice Panel as a source of expertise when setting up experiments. Other institutional structures within government can also help with experimentation. The Behavioural Insights Team, for example, operates a classic ‘skunkworks’ model, semi-detached from day-to-day bureaucracy. Equally, the nine UK What Works Centres help try things out semi-detached from central power.

A lasting criticism of some experiments is that they only deal with the margins of policy and delivery – we need to be bolder. 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.

Fear of failure is understandable, especially when those who didn’t get into power will be seeking revenge by trashing your new policies. But experimenting first with new ideas in order to find what works best is much more likely to make a difference to the rest of us. It may mean U-turns, but that’s better than recklessly ploughing on with untested paper-based policies.

FURTHER READING

  • Micro to macro. Insights from the behavioural sciences are increasingly being applied to policy challenges around the world. A pioneer of this trend is the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team – its managing director, Owain Service, tells us about their experiences
  • Welcome to the lab. Governments worldwide share an insatiable hunger for that flash of inspiration that can transform public services. To do so they increasingly rely on a lab, a bespoke group of individuals dedicated to driving innovation and impact. We speak to the director of Denmark’s MindLab, Thomas Prehn, about this pioneering approach to policymaking
  • From imagination to innovation. Faced with what are often seen as mountainous challenges, policymakers are increasingly reliant on creativity to power their ascent. Alan Iny explains why thinking outside the box is just the start
  • Transformation from the grassroots. Driven by the belief that the best solutions to challenges can be found in communities across the country, the Obama administration created the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation to find new ways to solve old problems. Here, Dan Vogel talks to the Office’s first director, Sonal Shah, about her experiences in reshaping American government