This chapter sets out the advantages (and some disadvantages) of random allocation or the randomized controlled trial (RCT) as a method to test interventions and evaluate casual processes in the social sciences. Randomization allows the evaluation of the counterfactual as both observed and unobserved factors are equally present in both treatment and control groups except for the variable of interest or intervention. While RCTs were present at the founding of the social sciences in the early twentieth century, the method languished until its enthusiastic rediscovery by development economists and students of political behaviour in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Now both economics and political science have a profusion of experiments and many scholars adopt the framework of causal inference and use identified designs in the form of regression discontinuity designs, difference-in-differences, comparative interrupted time series, and instrumental variable models, which may be called natural experiments. Trials have been used increasingly in public policy evaluations since the 1960s. But studies of the policy process and implementation remain largely untouched. This contrasts with their rapid adoption in the sister discipline of public administration, which shares an interest in decision making and the role of institutions and organizations, as shown by a recent wave of experiments with bureaucrats and studies under the banner of behavioural public administration. The chapter seeks to explain this lack of interest as a result of social networks and traditions of study in public policy, which have led the predominance of case study and interview-based methods (which can of course be integrated into randomized designs). The conclusion to draw is that there is a massive gap to be filled in the study of public policy. Experimental studies should be carried out so public policy studies can keep pace with advances in other disciplines.
Research on the policy agenda offers a unique perspective on how public decisions are made and implemented, in particular highlighting the influence of the mass media and the salience of ideas and argumentation. This chapter contains a summary of agenda-setting theory in the classic works of public policy, followed by a review of the policy agendas approach as advocated by Baumgartner and Jones in the research on punctuated equilibrium. Then a more critical viewpoint is offered, which suggests that writers on agenda-setting find it hard to make causal inferences about the sources of change in public policy.
Assessing Behavioural Public Policy
Behavioural public policies or nudges have become ever more popular in recent years, with governments and other public agencies increasingly keen to use light-touch interventions to improve public policies. Nudge units and their equivalents have been established across the world, and bureaucrats often use experiments to test out behavioural interventions. By asking how far to nudge, the book is a review of how behavioural economists, think tank advocates and policy-makers have used nudges, providing many examples of good practice. Some common criticisms of nudge are also reviewed, as is the ethical debate about the loss of individual autonomy. The core claim of the book is that policy-makers could go further than they do currently by adopting a more radical version of the research and policy agenda. By incorporating more conscious thought into behavioural public policies, what is called ‘nudge plus’, while at the same time encouraging a bottom-up and decentralised approach to formulating and authorising nudges, policy-makers can design policies that give more agency to citizens.