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Simplicity is at the root of policy failures Whether it's lockdown regulations or welfare payments, one-size-fits-all is not the answer

An uprising against the hated elite by the people of [checks notes] Islington (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

An uprising against the hated elite by the people of [checks notes] Islington (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)


May 28, 2020   5 mins

At school, I always loved the moment in language lessons when you had to learn how to list your siblings. Thanks to my parents’ divorce and remarriages, I have a brother, a sister, a half-sister and three step sisters, which meant I got to show off my mastery of complicated words like stiefschwestern and hermanastras. I pitied the children with boring families and boring things to say like “je suis enfant unique.” What surprised me, though, was that even my best friends could never quite remember which of my sisters belonged to which step parent. We have infinite ability to understand the complexity of our own lives. But when we think about other people? The details get blurred, like the background in a Zoom video.

I was reminded of this very human weakness as I listened to Dominic Cummings exhaustively describe the “complicated, tricky situation” that had led him to drive his family to Durham at the end of March. He seemed to think that “complicated” and “tricky” were evidence that his circumstances were exceptional. Because, like my school friends, he was blind to the complexity of others’ lives — the thousands upon thousands of other parents who also had little children, sick spouses and important jobs.

The government wrote a lockdown policy that was radically different to the norm in our common law system. Under common law, everything is legal unless prohibited by law. During the lockdown the default was the opposite: it was illegal to leave your home unless you had a good excuse. That shift puts an impossible burden on those who draft the law, to think of every single good reason that could arise, in the infinite variety of human experience.

They missed a few. Of course they did. They deluded themselves that a short list of legal exemptions would be enough. They deluded themselves that tricky and complicated were rare.

This is an affliction that runs right through the heart of policymaking. We build models and spreadsheets to establish what the impact of a policy might be. To fit into those spreadsheets, the people have to be grouped into categories of similar people, and then all the inconvenient and incompatible details of their lives have to be stripped away. And that’s when we’re doing things properly. Half the time, we simply make an assumption that everyone in the population is very much like us.

In the 2005 General Election, my job was to research and advocate for the Liberal Democrat plan to replace Council Tax with a local income tax. I spent weeks poring over data about household composition: who lives in what family groups. I remember being astonished by how few families met the model I had in my head for normal — in other words the model I had grown up with — two full-time working parents with children. At the time, less than one in 10 households had two parents working full time, and children at home.

It didn’t stop the media writing up reports about the terrible impact of the Lib Dems’ proposals that were almost always based on the calculation of two full time workers on the average income. I counted it a victory for common sense on the rare occasions they bothered to put the mother on the average female income, as it brought the total down by several thousand pounds. But even then single parents, retired people, disabled people, students, working people who lived on their own: the impact on them was obliterated by the urgent yearning for simplicity among the people who designed infographics.

That yearning for simplicity is at the root of countless policy failures. Take Universal Credit. It was designed to radically simplify the welfare system, which everyone agreed was far too complicated. Wouldn’t it be easier, we asked ourselves, if people got a single, simple payment to meet all of their needs? If all the benefits were rolled into one, and you could apply via a single online portal?

I fell for this delusion myself. I watched experts draw graphs on whiteboards in meetings, and say things like “smooth taper” and I found myself seduced. This would be so much better than what I’d described in speeches as the “rollercoaster of tax credit overpayments”. I failed to fully understand that tax credits had become chaotic for claimants primarily because their lives were chaotic. Their incomes were unstable. They could get more hours one week, and lose them the next. Their childcare could fall through. They could be booted out of their home. They could be victims of fraud.

Of course, I knew these things were possible. But I didn’t recognise that they were normal — more likely to happen than not, for the people who would use UC. The welfare system shouldn’t be built for the average person. It has to be built for the extreme cases — or at least for the average claimant. And the average claimant is more likely to have a mental health problem than not, so making the system accessible for people with mental illness isn’t a luxury. It has to be your starting point.

The sad truth is that not even treatment pathways for people with mental health problems have been designed to suit the needs of the people they serve. They send appointment letters to people’s homes, not recognising that half of people with a mental health problem report they struggle with opening the post. I’ve heard stories of people blacklisted from treatment because they didn’t turn up for appointments they didn’t know they had.

Take sentencing policy. It is almost always written by people who’ve never committed a crime, and assume they understand the way to deter people who have from doing it again. They imagine that a long sentence will be a better deterrent, because they themselves would hate to go to prison. They rarely stop to think about the complex interplay of forces that drives kids to carry knives or join a gang: fear, status, opportunity.

A benefits adviser I met a couple of years ago told me about a single mum who’d got into debt to buy a 52-inch flat screen TV. No matter how bad things got, she wouldn’t get rid of the TV. It was the biggest on the estate. Plenty of people would be quick to judge her. But she kept the TV because it was status for her teenage son: he and his friends would stay indoors and play video games. It kept him out of a gang.

No one is going to suggest a national programme to buy large TVs for teenagers at risk, and I wouldn’t want them to. Only a parent could possibly know that this was the one thing that would make a difference for their child.

But we have to stop with the cookie cutter policies, imposed on everyone as if we were all identical. This is about so much more than lockdown. Complicated and tricky is everywhere you look. One-size fits all policies designed in Whitehall can’t possibly accommodate the infinite diversity of human experience. Central policy makers need to develop the humility to understand that other people’s lives are just as multi-coloured as their own. We must stop blurring out the background, and give people who can see the problem for what it is, the power to fix it. That means more flexibility — whether for benefits advisers, youth workers, therapists, community groups or local councils. One size fits no one.


Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.

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Andrew Best
Andrew Best
4 years ago

One size fits no one?
Really?
But you love the EU and want us to stay,
So one size does fit all when it suits you!

Nigel Clarke
Nigel Clarke
4 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

They can’t help it. Hypocrisy is a large animal from Africa.

Alex Camm
Alex Camm
4 years ago

I agree with Andy Jones there is a naïveté about the assumption that policies can be tailored to fit all.
Creeping bureaucracy stifles much activity in most area of life

rob.jonson
rob.jonson
4 years ago

That shift puts an impossible burden on those who draft the law, to think of every single good reason that could arise

They missed a few. Of course they did.

To be fair – the law doesn’t attempt to list every single good reason. It says ‘reasonable excuse’ and then lists some examples of reasonable excuses.

It is very clearly written to acknowledge that people have to make judgement calls on what other things might be reasonable.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago
Reply to  rob.jonson

Exactly right, Rob. The legislation doesn’t list “house on fire”, so thank heavens for the reasonable excuse clause.
The legal concept of reasonableness is pretty wide. Your actions simply have to not be so extreme that no reasonable person would act in that way. Hence why Durham Constabulary were unable to feel the collar of Dominic Cummings.

Hilary Arundale
Hilary Arundale
4 years ago
Reply to  rob.jonson

I doubt many people read the law. They follow the slogans. As they are told to do.

T C
T C
4 years ago

Although I largely agree with the point made in your article, your reliance on the coronavirus regulations is misplaced. Firstly, under Section 6 of The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (Regulations 2020 – the relevant regulations – the test is whether a person could show a “reasonable excuse” (cf. a “good excuse”) for leaving his or her home. “Reasonableness”, of course, is a concept our common law has a long tradition of assessing in a variety of circumstances. Secondly, rather than providing a short list of exhaustive legal exemptions, as your article suggests, the exemptions are examples of the type of behaviour that will be considered “reasonable” (viz. “a reasonable excuse includes…”). It is slightly worrying that someone in your position could misunderstand this.

As for sentencing guidelines, I agree that these cause more harm than good. The main reason is that they take away the ability of the Judge to decide on a just sentence. Instead, the Judge is bound by the constrains of what some detached civil servant happens to think would be a suitable punishment for the crime in question. It would be much better to put the discretion back in the hands of the Judge again entirely. Only the Judge will have watched the trial, perhaps heard evidence from the Defendant and had a real opportunity to consider what would be a just sentence in the specific circumstances of the case.

andy9
andy9
4 years ago

Conversely though, many government policies and regulations get progressively added to and built upon over time to produce systems of huge complexity, so complex that people struggle to understand all of the details. Like a once fine house with lots of badly built extensions tacked onto the sides.

Often this is done to accommodate complexity; the scenarios which had not been foreseen, to close flexibility which comes to be seen as loop-holes, or to narrowly and specifically target certain groups for certain treatment.

With much of government policy there seems to be an unfortunate trade-off; simplicity in policy often means poorly targeted measures, unforeseen loop-holes and a failure to accommodate the complexities of the individual. But government attempts to address that results in yet more policy and regulations creating excessive complexity for the user and often unforeseen policy interactions resulting unintended incentives and consequences, typically requiring yet more complexity.

I guess the ideal is to have simple policy where it has been well designed, tested, robust to gaming and evaluated at the limits, to ensure it works and provides the right incentives such that it isn’t necessary to write every scenario or detail into it.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
4 years ago
Reply to  andy9

Your are right, the problem is not government simplicity but government complexity. The solution is for the grasping and gormless state to ‘simply’ stop doing so many things and to cut taxes so that people have more freedom in which to live their ‘complex’ lives without state intrusion and largesse.

Douglas McCallum
Douglas McCallum
4 years ago

The medical/public health establishment continues to insist on a similar “one size fits all” approach to Cover-19. The idea that the population over 70 comprises the “vulnerable” is not only absurdly simplistic but flies in the face of evidence. Mortality is principally (albeit not exclusively) related to underlying health problems and conditions, not age itself (except for the very elderly, e.g. 85 or 90+). A healthy 75 year old without health issues is much less “vulnerable” than a 65 year old with diabetes and/or cardiac problems.

Consider as well the “one size fits all” approach to lock-down in general. People who would normally commute into crowded big cities might be in close physical proximity to tens of thousands of other people every day. In small town and rural areas we would be hard pressed in normal times to encounter even a hundred. Presumably the probability of either catching or passing on the virus is therefore hugely greater in big cities than in sparsely populated areas. This has shown up fairly consistently in affected countries in which dense urban areas tend to have worse outbreaks (think of New York City).

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago

Although many people seem to think otherwise, the rules for over-70’s are exactly the same as for everyone else. They are simply advised to take special care.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
4 years ago

Apart from the incorrect dig at the drafters of the lockdown rules – see Rob Jonson below – this is an interesting and thoughtful piece. It is, as Fraser Bailey says, an inevitable consequence of the state attempting to do more and more.
To take the case of benefit law, at one time benefits were administered locally, as Parish Relief. The payments may seem miserly by modern standards and the conditions harsh but the decisions took account of local issues and were taken with a knowledge of the individual applicant. Opportunities for benefit fraud were few.
This system was open to criticism as what today we would call a postcode lottery. Everyone must be treated equally, wherever they live, based on their circumstances in relation to a national standard, not a local one. Inevitably, such a system is bureaucratic, clumsy, clunky and unresponsive. It, along with many other encroachments of the state into local communities, tends inexorably towards homogeneity. We complain about the way every high street looks the same but seem happy to accept this uniformity in just about everything else.

alwyn_kotze
alwyn_kotze
4 years ago

“One size fits no one.” OK. Fine. Now let’s design some national policies without reference to a standard…

I get that that this is an opinion piece. But so much in the 21st C discourse is about saying “No, not like that” and nothing else.

Actual proposals are needed.

John Dee
John Dee
4 years ago
Reply to  alwyn_kotze

You must admit, that would require a longer article and some actual thought.

Kenneth MacKillop
Kenneth MacKillop
4 years ago

Because “one size fits all” does not work, and because governments cannot implement “many different sizes” at all, the Swedish approach is wise and elegant. Let individuals decide for themselves “what size they are” and “tailor” their own bespoke individual policies as much as possible.

There are a few functions for which governments are vital. And then there are those for which government is absolutely the least helpful and the most harmful. This virus and epidemic are decidedly in the latter category.

Some highly focused government efforts, in theory, might be beneficial — mainly limited and carefully designed plans to address the care home problem. That will have to wait for a future pandemic, however, and will take many years of effort with sustained public backing rather than forgetting. Giesecke is probably right in his prediction that nothing will improve in public policy.

Claire M
Claire M
4 years ago

Fascinating. Thank you.

Lee Johnson
Lee Johnson
4 years ago

Very good article. I wish more of the kommentariat thought like this.

Anonymous
Anonymous
4 years ago

It is said, although no one writes it in the press, that DC’s situation is more tricky than that of other parents because his son is autistic, cannot eat or dress unaided, and becomes highly stressed if he is with people he doesn’t know, or indeed if there are people he doesn’t know demonstrating outside his house. I wish DC had confirmed this in his statement, but I can quite understand why he would not want to discuss his son in public; and if he had done so, his enemies would have criticised him for doing it.

Tony Hay
Tony Hay
4 years ago

Universal Basic Income. Easily understood. Simple to administer. One size. Fits all. See Louise Perry in today’s Post https://unherd.com/thepost/

jfgwells57
jfgwells57
4 years ago

This article is so right about mental health service users and pathways. The word pathways was chosen to show what experience of services should be like – simple, pleasant, taking you to a good ending as long as you follow it, just like a good path. Nothing could be further from the reality of the experience of service seekers. The term “pathway” like many others in health and social care has become alienating and insulting for patients and their families.

Derek M
Derek M
4 years ago

“Take sentencing policy. It is almost always written by people who’ve never committed a crime” – I should hope not, it would be dangerous and ridiculous if it was. Only a Lib Dem (or maybe a Green) would suggest otherwise

Lang Cleg
Lang Cleg
4 years ago

This is why UBI is such a terrible idea.

ruthengreg
ruthengreg
4 years ago

Law, Guide lines, whatever they expected us to lockdown. DC didn’t, okay he may have good cause. But he should have sought guidance. There’s where he went wrong. Facts. An apology would have been enough. But low and behold he broke the regulation again. I find his tale unconvincing. It was a wrong signal. Clever he maybe God he is not..and he should go. He and his family will been hounded more by the press. Again wrong. Now Boris is putting unnecessary pressure on his colleagues. We can do without this side show. It is sending the wrong signals out. Commonsense please before it gets worse Boris.

maddfox321
maddfox321
4 years ago

You make some good points . But in my opinion ” Demonic ” Cummings was not in Durham for childcare . He was in secret meeting with GlaxoSmithkline .

tundemusa2020
tundemusa2020
4 years ago

Interesting post

henk korbee
henk korbee
4 years ago

I read all comments despite I am not a UK citizen. Almost all has been said. I only remark that there has been a mechanism to require that the State is able to do more and more for individuals, like taking care of. But what does that mean taking care of? At a huge cost preventing someone have to die caused by nature?

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
4 years ago

The more detailed guidance did allow for what Cummings did going to Durham – his excuse for his trip to the castle when no longer infectious is weak but is it better or worse than Ferguson getting his married mistress round for a leg over?

The point about the simplicity of headline rules and focus group generated slogans is clear. If we are to get out of this mess we need a different approach based on understanding what we are trying to achieve and then some advice and guidance – not rules that we can apply sensibly to our own situation.

It is my 52nd birthday on Tues and it looks like being the hottest day of the year so far. We are having a local family of close friends round for a BBQ. Unfortunately that will be 8 people in my garden – meets the rules in Wales and Scotland but not in UK. We will probably apply the WHO 1m rule rather than 2m as that is more practical. Whilst I am happy for my friends to wee in the garden I am not going to exclude them from the house for this purpose.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
4 years ago

Very well said. The universal basic income (UBI) is one program where simplicity is always put forward as a big selling point. It is supposedly going to replace a grab-bag of programs and get rid of most of the bureaucracy associated with social assistance. However, in Ontario, where a basic income pilot was announced in April 2017, the bureaucratic system that determines eligibility for disability, drug, and dental benefits remained in place. This was all supposed to fade away when the UBI became law and was further refined, but it is difficult to see how if this really happened it would be an improvement. For disability benefits, for example, would it really be better to eliminate bureaucrats with a specialized knowledge of different kinds of wheelchairs to decide what a crippled person need with a much reduced cadre of workers handing out simple cash payments to people who had just lost the use of their limbs and had no clue what they needed? Is that really the hallmark of sharing, caring society?

Andrew Roman
Andrew Roman
4 years ago

As a Canadian lawyer for close to 50 years I was often involved in drafting and amending laws. The writer makes a good point about laws that try to cover too much and fail to recognize the risk of unintended consequences.

There are at least two types of potentially good laws: legal rules and grants of discretion to officials. Legal rules are necessarily rigid. You wouldn’t want to measure the length of something with an elastic ruler. That means one size fits all.

Discretions are more complex. They permit officials to decide to do/not do something, or, e.g., to finance/not finance something, subject to various requirements and prohibitions.

Balancing the mix of these two types of laws is an art, not a science.

But then we have a third category, what we see in this issue: a law that creates a prohibition with a subjective discretion as to compliance: Thou shalt not leave home unless you have a valid reason. If there was a complete list of valid reasons the law would be clear. With no list or only a partial and non-exhaustive list of reasons you have a vague law.

A good law is one which is sufficiently clear that a person subject to that law can know with a high degree of certainty whether some future conduct will be inconsistent with that law. That is not this law. Hence everyone is free to second guess the validity of anyone’s departure from home.

On one view, such laws are not really laws in substance, they are merely guidelines presented in the form of a law. On that view we should not be too hasty to characterise someone’s behaviour as illegal, as distinguished from inappropriate or irresponsible.

Adam Huntley
Adam Huntley
4 years ago

One thing that would have been very simple was to say “I am sorry for the hurt my decision may have caused and am grateful for your understanding”

cbrown
cbrown
3 years ago

This is a compelling argument for small Government. It’s too difficult and too expesive for Governments to micro manage society – unless one aspires to the lowest common denominator of pure socialism – a concept consistently rejected by the West.