National Social Marketing Centre

Trials and tribulations...

Aiden Truss, Monday, May 16, 2011 - 09:25

Writing at the weekend, Ben Goldacre yet again pointed out the disconnection between political good intentions and evidence-driven policy. He calls for a simple measure to test the efficacy of a wide variety of interventions across different areas of public policy by the introduction of randomised trials. In a side-swipe at a Conservative MP's recently proposed bill to introduce abstinence classes for young girls, he is unequivocal:

This week the papers and parliament were filled with uninformed wittering on sex education. If the goal is to delay sexual activity or reduce STIs, and you don't know what age to start or what to teach, then stop wittering: define your outcome, randomise schools to different programmes, and you'll have the answer by the end of next parliament.

The trouble is that some truths revealed by research are unpalatable or even a political liability. What if randomised trials revealed hard data that the best way to reduce teenage pregnancies was to issue free contraceptive pills to every schoolgirl over the age of 12 in every school? The political - and, no doubt moral - outcry would make any minister shy from taking action.

And, it's the same for the 'war on drugs'. Time and again we've seen evidence that prohibition of a substance doesn't get rid of the problem: it merely shifts production to the black market and creates yet more misery. Yet, policy in this area is shackled to a categorical moral message that drugs are bad and so must be banned.

So, my scientific straw men are possibly extreme examples, but they do illustrate where the problem is here: that often, evidence and policy do not make good bedfellows.

At The NSMC we're trying to do our bit with our One Stop Shop research database which was launched recently. There is a wealth of unpublished public sector data and research out there, which unfortunately often ends up being duplicated by different agencies and institutions. This research is not routinely shared and opportunities are missed to overlay data across different issues within population groups.

One Stop Shop pulls this data together in one place and is accessible to anyone with an NHS or .gov email address. It won't solve our policy problems, but it's a good place to start for those working to use real evidence to change behaviour for the better.

Goldacre suggests sacking the government's Behavioural Insights team in favour of setting up a 'Number 10 Policy Trials Unit' instead. Though he may have a point about the current fascination of politicians for 'nudging', perhaps a marriage of the two ideas would be preferable.

Who knows, we could end up with a process that outlines clear, evidence-based, behavioural goals and then attempts to address them with rigorous research and insight in order to find ways to reach our target groups.

But what would we call it...

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