How to get politicians to think experimentally

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Politicians engage in a variety of local campaign strategies that they think will help them get re-elected, but they don’t really know if the money they spend works or not. Peter John explains how experiments conducted by politicians and researchers working in partnership can be a useful way of finding out what actually works in local campaigning.

Experiments are becoming very common these days as public agencies turn to randomised controlled trials to evaluate public policies.  The Behavioural Insights Team, which was in the Cabinet Office, has blazed a trail by using trials to test for a range of innovations, such as getting income tax paid on time, collecting court fines, getting people into work, and improving education attainment, just to name a few of the recent applications. Despite this growing interest, one group of people doesn’t use experiments very much: the politicians, at least those in the UK.

Politicians want to get re-elected and they engage in a variety of local campaign strategies  with the aim of improving their chances of doing so such as leafleting, e-mailing, door knocking, using social media, and buying space in newspapers. But they don’t really know if the money they spend generates votes in the ballot box.  Politicians have been advised that they need to get information on the type of voters who support them so that they can target messages to them, or find their core or loyal voters to ensure that they turn out to vote.  But looking at election results after spending the money does not tell them whether their campaigning worked or whether they would have won anyway. In contrast, experiments use randomisation to provide a fair comparison between doing nothing and carrying out an intervention.

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