The remarkable achievement of developing a vaccine for Covid-19 in under a year is testimony to the wonders that science can achieve, and the indisputable merits of the scientific process. Science advances thanks to a fundamental and ingrained feeling of self-doubt – a hypothesis is tested, and is not deemed to be correct until there is sufficient evidence to support that hypothesis. Should this evidence not materialise, or should contrary evidence be found, the scientist accepts that the hypothesis was incorrect, and develops a new theory that better fits the available data. There is therefore no shame in admitting that a proposal is demonstrated to be false, and on the contrary the amending of hypotheses is a vital part of the process. In the view of the authors, politics would benefit from taking a more scientific approach to new laws, in order to ensure that they are effective, fair and beneficial for society.
The proposal falls into two parts, addressing two fundamental requirements:
1) No policy should be put in place without a defined, measurable aim.
2) No policy should be put in place without an assessment of its expected impact across a number of criteria.
These two mantras are thought to be simple, understandable, and above all, uncontroversial. It should be self-evident that a government needs to understand the desired outcomes and the expected side-effects of any law or policy that it puts into place, an approach which has been exemplified by the laws brought in to manage the pandemic. In this approach impact assessments are either omitted or conducted as an afterthought, and politicians are heard talking more about the details of how they will implement laws rather than the fundamental reasons governing their introduction. To expand on the concept, further details of the proposal are set out below.
Firstly, all proposed policies should have a clear and measurable aim. These aims should be set out before translation of a new policy into law, along with the proposed methods and timescale for assessment. Secondly, a wide range of criteria, common to all new policies (e.g. Public Health, Economic Effects, Mental Health and Wellbeing etc) should be set out, and the expected consequences of the new law in each category should be documented at the outset. For less far-reaching policies, the side effects would be correspondingly less extensive. After the set assessment period has elapsed, a review process would analyse both the success of the new law in meeting its aims, and also the extent and magnitude of the additional side effects.
Should a law not prove to have the cost-benefit ratio that was expected at its outset, it would be fully expected, and even commended, for the lawmakers to amend or revoke the law under the light of the new evidence. This is standard scientific practice that we argue should be more commonplace in Politics – this way, the U-turn would cease to be a sign of weakness, and instead become an indication that a government takes a diligent and responsible approach to analysing the evidence available and changing policies accordingly.
Detractors may point out that this proposal would undermine a government’s ability to act quickly in the face of a changing situation. But on the contrary it seems self-evident that for a government to act precipitately without a clear understanding of the expected aims and consequences of their new laws is a fundamentally bad concept, leading to a glut of poorly thought-out laws and legislation, unclear in their aims and harmful in their side-effects. Even in an emergency there is no reason to suppose that the central goals could not be clearly stated.
Would this be feasible? Fortunately, we live in a country with a long history of Cabinet (as opposed to Presidential) government, a mechanism that already allows for the notion that Government impositions should be collaborative. This proposal extends that sense of collaboration to the whole population, who would be able to see clearly what has been proposed and whether it has worked. We believe this would lead to a lessened sense of grievance that measures have been imposed, a more informed level of public debate, and therefore a reduced tendency to the poisonous entrenched polarisation of views that threatens us all.
To summarise – the pandemic has made it clear that governments around the world lack the framework by which to analyse laws brought in to solve complex problems. In order to address this, a two-part solution is proposed, in which the aims and anticipated effects of a new law are clearly defined at the outset, and the effectiveness of each new law is reviewed after a set period of time has elapsed following the law’s implementation. By focussing on what a government wants to achieve on a fundamental level and demonstrating a willingness to adapt and re-evaluate, it is hoped and expected that policy will be more meaningful, more measured and better thought-through, and thus will lead to a fairer country for all and a more robust Democracy enjoying popular support.