The rise of experimental government

I just came across this blog from David Halpern (National Adviser on What Works and CEO of Behavioural Insights Team, UK) which is concerned with the lack of empirical evidence used to guide decision making in many areas of public services.  In the UK a series of ‘What Works’ centres have been established to generate ‘good empirical studies’ in a range of different welfare service areas.

Now I am all for using more evidence to inform policy and practice (working in a university how could I be against this?).  Although I suspect that in some of the areas that the What Works teams are talking about it is not necessarily a lack of evidence that is the problem but weighing up a series of complex value judgements.  These are typically not easily resolved by more evidence about effectiveness.

Anyway, I have written about this blog not to get into a debate about evidence and decision making and if you have been in one of my policy design and implementation classes you will have heard all about my stance on this.  I raise it instead because of the last section of Halpern’s piece which talks about the idea of radical incrementalism.  Halpern explains:

‘Radical incrementalism is the idea that dramatic improvements can be achieved, and are more likely to be achieved, by systematically testing small variations in everything we do, rather than through dramatic leaps into the dark. For example, the dramatic wins of the British cycling team at the last Olympics are widely attributed to the systematic testing by the team of many variations of the bike design and training schedules. Many of these led to small improvements, but when combined created a winning team. Similarly, many of the dramatic advances in survival rates for cancer over the last 30 years are due more to constant refinements in treatment dosage and combination than to new ‘breakthrough’ drugs. Applying similar ‘radical incrementalism’ to public sector policy and practice, from how we design our websites, to the endless details in jobcentres to business support schemes, we can be pretty confident that each of these incremental improvements can lead to an overall performance that is utterly transformed in its cost-effectiveness and overall impact.


Helen Sullivan talked about this very same idea in the Imagining the 21st century public servant workforce report which we published last year. What we argued in this report was that if the approach of radical incrementalism is to be effective then the first task must be to ensure that we all have a sense of what we are working towards.  We both use the example of British cycling and there I guess the aim is to go faster for longer.  The aims in areas of local economic development or early education might be slightly more complex.  Without a sense of strategic aim then evidence cannot play the role in the process that it might.  In our research into the Australian public service one of the things we heard frequently was the lack of strategic oversight and horizon scanning – and I don’t think Australia is alone in this.  Having established where we want to go, having good evidence to back up this process and to help us track progress is, of course, absolutely crucial.

I would like to hear from any individuals or teams who have experimented with this notion of radical incrementalism in recent practice and hear about your experience with this.  Did it turn out to be as radical as you had hoped?  Did you reach the end point?  What helped and hindered this process?







One thought on “The rise of experimental government

  1. Alex Gunn February 3, 2015 / 7:14 pm

    Warren Walker’s approach to managing “deep uncertainty” comes at this from a different angle, designing different pathways and triggers to deal with how the future might unfold, but having a strong grasp of the overall goals is still critical to the process, too. Now, maintaining political support over the very long term…

    Thanks, great post!

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