17 July 2018

A new report looks at the biases which influence politicians and officials when they make decisions. Government can use this new thinking to improve policy making, says Tom Sasse.

The Behavioural Insights Team made its name using behavioural economics and social psychology to understand how citizens make decisions to help government make smarter policies. In their new report, written in collaboration with the Institute for Government, they turn their lens onto policy makers themselves.

Like everyone else, officials and politicians have a range of biases. They look for information that confirms their existing views. A study of Danish politicians found they were good at interpreting data on ‘School A’ and ‘School B’ but bad at interpreting the same data when the schools were labelled ‘public’ and ‘private’. Their own views shaped what they saw.

The report points to ‘groupthink’ as another form of bias. People who speak first in meetings can sway group opinion, which enables bad ideas to mushroom. Views often become entrenched when decision-makers meet with people outside their group, for example, from another department.

Politicians and officials are also over-confident about implementation – referred to as ‘optimism bias’. They over-estimate ‘their own abilities, the quality of their plans, and the likelihood of future success’. They think they know more than they do, and troublingly a study found this gets worse the more senior they become. Universal Credit is a good example of this. Ministers and officials were hugely over-confident about implementing major IT changes on time and within budget. It is a frequent problem across major projects.  

What should government do to prevent bias creeping in?

The report puts forward several approaches. Departments should use ‘collaborative red-teaming’, a tactic adapted from the military, which involves tasking groups of officials to find weaknesses in a proposal. Government has started to do this – the Infrastructure and Projects Authority (IPA) often reviews major projects in this way; and the Commercial Function has started using this method to stress test bids – but it should be used more. The report also suggests conducting ‘pre-mortems’ on projects to explore doubts and counter optimism bias. Such an exercise was clearly missing from the development of Universal Credit, whereas it was a major feature of the successful delivery of the Olympics.

But at the launch event for the report, panellists said the bigger question is what these insights imply for ‘institutions, structures and processes’. How can departments be set up to prevent bias in the first place? Based on our work on evidence and policy making, here are three areas government should think about:

  1. Transparency - It is impossible to assess bias when policy is made behind closed doors. Departments must publish the evidence base behind policy decisions – as we have argued as part of our work on an Evidence Transparency Framework. Too many still do this poorly. But Government should go further and open up the policy making process, exposing its thinking as early as possible. This has been a key aim since 2012 but there has been little progress. As the Institute has argued, if ‘open policy making’ is to work ministers and top officials need to put much more faith in it.
  2. Accountability – It is often unclear which senior official in the department is responsible for the quality of evidence used to inform decisions. This makes it easier for bias to slip through. Heads of Policy and Chief Scientific Advisers should oversee how evidence is used and report on it annually to the Permanent Secretary.
  3. Challenge in the system – Decisions made based on poor (or misinterpreted) evidence often go unchallenged. This is partly about bias, but also to do with incentives. Challenging those above you – political or official – is not always the fastest way to get promoted. Every department must ensure they have independent voices in place who can challenge their decision-making to ensure it is rigorous. In some areas this can be done by another government body, as the Infrastructure and Projects Authority does for major projects. But it needs to happen across all policy making. Externally appointed Chief Scientific Advisers should be among those playing this role, but they often lack influence. Independent expert bodies can also help test officials, but these are not used consistently across Whitehall.

Tackling bias is not easy. Government makes complicated, political decisions and biases are hard to spot in real time. They are even harder to weed out. But recognising the problem is the first step. Departments must now find ways to stop bias creeping in to begin with.             


Here is a classic example of ‘optimism bias’ in public procurement.

The reason why the Ministry of Defence is in such a fix that it has been coerced into finding efficiency savings by HM Treasury is because it keeps making the same mistakes over and over again, like for instance, believing what it is told by its industry partners about the maturity of their products, right at the start of the equipment acquisition process.

When it comes to procuring new equipment for the Armed Forces, the first and foremost question politicians always ask is, how much is it going to cost?

Any meaningful attempt at answering this question is hampered by the fact that, very few people in Whitehall understand and appreciate that the single most important factor that determines the ultimate whole life cost of any defence equipment programme is the maturity of the existing starting-point for the Technical Solution in the possession of Defence Contractors – the closer the developmental status of the starting-point to the Requirement, as described in the technical specification, the lower the cost the Exchequer will have to bear associated with completing the remaining work to bridge the shortfall.

Even more worryingly, those who do know are not in decision-making or leadership positions.

The maturity of a starting-point for the Technical Solution can fall anywhere between two extremes. At one end, starting from a ‘blank sheet of paper’ amounts to a non-existent solution whereas at the other end, an off-the-shelf equipment corresponds to a readily available, fully engineered and supported Technical Solution which satisfies the totality of the Requirement at no additional cost or risk to MoD, that is to say, it does not require any development work laden with risk to be performed upon it.

Additionally, MoD does not possess the capability in the form of intelligent and experienced procurement officials who have an adequate understanding of what it takes (in terms of skill types, funding, tools, processes, materials, scheduled work plan, inter-business contractual agreements etc.) to advance an immature Technical Solution from its existing condition, to a point where it will satisfy the technical specification requirement, within a Private Sector setting driven by the profit motive and people who instinctively employ unethical business practices – leaving them susceptible to exploitation and manipulation by Defence Contractors. Consequently, they are not able to establish what the true status of the evolving technical solution is, based upon claims made by Contractors. The harsh truth is that, these people have no business acumen at all – on account of not having spent a single day of their lives in the Private Sector, which means that they have no idea what it is like to ‘feel the heat’ of competitive market forces.

So instead of simply telling the truth, Defence Contractors are consciously engaged in an exercise in subterfuge to take advantage of the ignorance of procurement officials, by making exaggerated claims about the maturity of their starting points for the Technical Solution – a scam which has led directly to initial programme costs being grossly underestimated by MoD – a condition referred to as the conspiracy of optimism.

To add to this wanton act of deception, Defence Contractors have also been deploying the old favourite of touting the so-called, minimal development solution – a commonly used ploy advanced to con procurement officials into believing that they have a nearly-ready Technical Solution on offer, when in reality, they probably have something in hand which is closer to starting from a ‘blank sheet of paper’!

This deceitful behaviour is a common trait in the defence manufacturing industry, beginning with the Select Few at the top and extending right down the entire supply chain.

Bias is an inherent feature, power and influence substantiate entitlement all of which fuel bias. Humanity is more concerned with preservation of power than it is with equality or acceptance of all. Policy makers have an inherent desire to preserve well established power structures in so that policy makers consider opposite genders to themselves or other nationalities in the domestic country as defined in existing terms of policy to be Minorities. This is reflected in the wording and tone of policy which through definition considers others as being of less value or importance reflecting their true bias.