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In his monthly blog, Nigel explores the challenging topic of who gets to decide what a good outcome looks like. We will explore these topics and many more in our Social Outcomes Conference 2020. Register for free and view our programme

Most people to agree that better social outcomes is a laudable goal. Indeed, such outcomes can seem deceptively easy to define: keeping someone alive for longer, or better exam grades for schoolchildren. Yet debates in health have moved beyond mere prolongation of life to quality of life, and in education, the debate around focusing on grades versus providing a broad-based education is perennial. It is hard to set the terms of success, let alone to determine if success was achieved, unless you know what a good outcome looks like. Who gets to decide? 

There are many ways to tackle this question intellectually, using the tools of economics, political science, or moral philosophy. These are helpful. The realities for those in government, though, are more prosaic. Decision-makers must find ways to set the terms of success within the confines of an ill-defined and sometimes elusive social consensus. Covid-19 is an extreme illustration of this. A good outcome is obviously fewer infections and deaths, but achieving this outcome has meant incurring devastating economic costs in many countries. As my colleague Ruth Dixon wrote with Christopher Hood early in the crisis, there were conflicting views on how to reconcile these two grim realities. 

In the end, it was up to politicians to decide. Even in normal times, politicians will naturally respond to the perceived social consensus in setting the terms of success, and may also try to shape it. Bureaucrats, by contrast, have not typically involved themselves in the messy business of engaging with citizens. In the UK, this may be changing. Whilst ideas around ‘service user voice’ and ‘citizen engagement’ have a long pedigree, they have always been somewhat peripheral. Now the establishment is taking notice. Impotence in the face of post-2008 austerity, unease at the rise of populist politics, and now the long shadow that Covid-19 will cast on the already disadvantaged: all of these point to a need to bring decision-making closer to the people it affects. 

We know of many UK local authorities who are already trying to do this – we discussed some in our report Are We Rallying Together? last year. Now it may be the turn of the central government to follow suit. Michael Gove, the UK Minister in charge of the Cabinet Office, made citizen responsiveness a central theme of a speech he delivered on the 27th June that had civil servants as its principal target. 

So does this mean that the terms of success, and the definition of a good outcome, is to be handed over directly to citizens to decide? Where does that leave the intellectual approaches? 

Gove has a prescription for that, too: more experimentation combined with rigorous, scientific evidence-gathering. This idea is not as new as he makes out – the government has set up or endorsed nine “What Works Centres” since 2010 whose job is to bring scientific evidence to bear on policy decisions. Gove set up one of them himself, as Education Secretary: the Educational Endowment Foundation, which was given £125m in 2011 to run randomised controlled trials (RCTs) in education. 

Is this desire to be led by science at odds with citizen engagement? Though RCTs are just one among countless methods of building an evidence base, they offer a useful illustration of where tensions may arise. RCTs are much prized in many circles for their use of statistical analysis and quantitative rigour. This makes them popular in international development, where they seem to give a definitive answer on the effectiveness of a particular programme. The most recent joint Nobel Economics Prize winners were cited for their work running RCTs in developing countries. A 2009 review by one of them, Michael Kremer, indicates that more teachers or textbooks tend not to improve test scores very much. But had you asked parents what they thought about the idea of more teachers or textbooks, perhaps the insights would have steered your policy in a different direction. 

All of this shows that the process of defining outcomes and using these to set the terms of success deserves thoughtfulness. Reconciling the increasing need for citizen engagement with the insights from science is certainly possible, but it is not automatic. We look forward to discussing these issues with you all at our Social Outcomes Conference in two month’s time.