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BPS Policy Unit

Same storm, separate boats?

25 June 2020 | by BPS Policy Unit

The following article is a joint effort by Kathryn Scott (Director of Policy at the BPS) and Saskia Perriard-Abdoh (BPS Policy Adviser), who leads on the Psychological Government Programme.

We live in uncertain times.

For many people, this is not a new feeling but an amplification of the difficult realities lived before lock-down. For others, this has been a period where things are no longer clear and the security that underpinned individual realities has been shaken- in some cases for the first time. We are all connected by this uncertainty and this sense of collective solidarity has helped us get through the past few months as a society.

However, we also know that the policies put in place for lockdown did not treat people the same or affect them equally. It may be the same storm we are weathering but we remain in separate boats.

The opportunity to access gardens and green spaces. Our reliance on public transport or ability to access safe childcare. Job security, the ability to work from home and the long-term viability of your industry. These factors all have an impact on our lives at different and complicated levels and have been the subject of heightened and rapid policy-debate over the past few months.

This crisis has shown that it is impossible to keep emotion out of policy making. And psychology clearly shows that it would be an error to attempt to do so. Difficult decisions have had to be taken quickly, with varying levels of success, emotional reaction and unintended consequences.

There is increasing scientific consensus that Covid-19 is here to stay. As are the difficult policy questions that arise from the pandemic. Policy makers must take accountability for the fact that any decision or implemented policy will not affect everyone equally. There will be trade-offs, unavoidable challenges, winners and losers.

But there is a way to make policy that can manage these pitfalls and at the same time build the trust needed to make the policy a success. And that’s to openly discuss trade-offs and burdens with those who will be affected. In order for this to happen, people need to be considered as decisions are being made not just symbolically consulted and informed once a decision has already been made.

People cannot simply be seen as amorphous units of society, relegated to being spectators and passive recipients of policy. Policy makers must avoid the mistake of speaking for people when we should instead be working with people.

In economics, there is an understanding that a model is only as good as its assumptions and that’s a useful start - if we take the time to question our assumptions. Simply invoking a “reference man” or “standard person” when designing policy is not fit for purpose when it comes to addressing the challenges and emotions we are now facing as a society. By comparison Psychologists start from the position that humans are complex and uncertain.

Last month, we held a lecture on bringing people into the policy-making process.

We discussed practical and theoretical perspectives on how this could be done and issued a challenge on the potential role of psychology in facilitating that engagement (and what existing elements in the evidence-base should be brought into the conversation about how people respond to and engage with policy).

As the BPS we are already responding to this challenge.

The increasing public recognition and awareness of the role of psychology in informing and translating policy cannot be taken for granted. So let’s own the uncertainty, and the deep understanding of it which is embedded within our work and our discipline.

Psychology can provide evidence which helps us work through this uncertainty. And where the evidence doesn’t exist, there are evidence-based models and frameworks that exist and can help us think through the consequences and unintended consequences of proposed policies. This is not only the aim of the society's Psychological Government Programme but also one which I hope that psychologists all over the world will embrace as one of the core strengths of our discipline.

At the end of the day, it’s not just about changing policy or chasing headlines, it’s about changing the way policy is made.

To keep track of ongoing Psychological Government developments or to join the conversation you can find us on twitter with #PsychGov or get in touch at [email protected]


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