Three biases that policymakers must avoid in crises – and how to do it

By on 27/02/2022 | Updated on 01/04/2022
Photo: Alpha Stock Images. Original author: Nick Youngson

The coronavirus pandemic required government to think fast and implement at pace novel policies. How well did it work? Tony Cash looks at the pitfalls that public servants must avoid in such situations

Developing and delivering effective government policy requires time. It takes time to consider the root causes of the issues that the policy is meant to address. It takes time to define intended outcomes of the policy and its scope. And it takes time to consider the costs, benefits and risks of the different possible policy options; not just during the lifetime of the policy measures themselves, but over the time period the policy will have an impact. This impact may extend many years beyond the lifetime of the measures themselves – as will be the case with the impact of the emergency measures governments put in place during the COVID-19 pandemic. Policy makers may never have all the information they would like, and so there is always some uncertainty about the impact of the policy until post-implementation monitoring and evaluation happens. But at least in routine policy making there will be significant amounts of time allowed for consultation, evidence gathering and analysis. In emergency policy development this probably will not be the case.

Crises, such as the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, a financial crisis, or the current conflict in Ukraine, dramatically shorten the time for the steps that good policy making requires. Decisions may have to be made quickly with very limited information, with the media and the public likely to be demanding immediate and costly action. The costs of the action will include unintended consequences e.g. on the economy, education, society, mental health etc, as well as on government finances. One of the most important routine policy options to consider is “do nothing”; but this is rarely politically or practically feasible in a crisis. If the crisis emergency was foreseen as possibility and contingency plans put in place, a government may be able to concentrate on putting those existing plans into action. But quite often, as with the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation has novel factors which the previous plans had not adequately foreseen and so new policies are needed. (And that is if the situation was foreseen as a possibility and prepared for at all.)

So, in a crisis, decisions may have to be made very quickly, with very limited information. Crisis measures – both new legal powers and special support measures, may be quick to implement but hard to reverse. This creates many potential pitfalls. These pitfalls also exist in routine policy making but are amplified in a crisis situation. One category of pitfall is the impact of cognitive biases on policy making. This article considers three of the many possible biases: optimism biases, negativity biases, and group-think. There are several biases that can affect policy but I believe that these three are particularly significant challenges for crisis policy making.

Read more: The age of permanent crisis is here – governments must rapidly adapt

Optimism bias

Optimism bias is a bias that, for example, causes people to underestimate the likelihood that they themselves (or an issue or project for which they are responsible) will be affected by a negative event. It is an issue that can hinder effective contingency planning ahead of a crisis because it results in risks being underestimated. In the run up to the 2008 financial crisis, policy makers underestimated the systemic risks building up and the likelihood of such a crisis occurring. Optimism bias is also a major potential problem when a crisis emerges, where politicians and officials may resist facing the scale of an emerging problem. Two years after the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is hard to believe that when lockdown measures were first implemented, the talk was of “three weeks to flatten the curve”. Governments generally underestimated how long such measures would be needed once put in place. This may have resulted in them introducing more draconian measures than if they had known the measures would have been in place for months and years, rather than weeks. They also, as a consequence, underestimated how long support measures for individuals and businesses would be needed and therefore underestimated their costs. Once a major investment – financial or otherwise – is made in a policy approach, the “sunk costs fallacy” also becomes a challenge that compounds the problems created by optimism bias. The first reaction of governments and the public to data that calls a policy into question may be to say that they have invested too much in this approach to change course now.

Negativity bias

Paradoxically, in addition to optimism bias, negativity bias can be a challenge in a crisis. Humans tend to pay more attention to negative information than positive information. There can be a tendency to focus on the negative. It is possible that this may have been a factor in the initial cautious – even dismissive – reaction by health officials in some countries during December 2021 to the early data suggesting the reduced severity of Omicron emerging from South Africa.  The challenges of negativity bias can be reinforced by confirmation bias. People tend to pay attention to the evidence in support of – and disregard evidence in conflict with – their prior beliefs. So, if for example they have established strong belief in a cautious, precautionary approach they may be resistant to new evidence that this is no longer needed.

Groupthink

Groupthink occurs when a desire for group consensus overrides people’s willingness to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion. David Blanchflower, former member of the UK Monetary Policy Committee (MPC), argues that the MPC’s failure to anticipate the recession triggered by the collapses of Northern Rock, Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group “is directly attributable to groupthink”.

Read more: Governments doing too little on climate change, say citizens

The problems caused by groupthink are likely to be increased in the case when emotions (including levels of fear) are heightened in an emergency. Some have argued that groupthink may have limited governments’ ability to consider a wider range of strategies for responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

So what can be done?

To address the challenge of cognitive biases, six approaches may help:

  1. Recognise that policy makers will have cognitive biases and to raise the question “which cognitive biases may be affecting us?” regularly throughout the policy process.
  2. Involve people from different policy professions, with different interests in the issue and from different social and political backgrounds.
  3. Welcome challenge and dissent e.g. through involving people with the role of “Devil’s Advocate” and not dismissing concerns about the unintended consequences of the policy, however well intended the policy may be.
  4. Ensure some of the policy analysis is done separately and then compared later, to reduce people’s influence on each other during the early stages of the analysis.
  5. As soon as possible, to publish an impact assessment of the policy that is transparent about costs, benefits and unintended consequences and to invite external feedback on it.
  6. Include the issue of the influence of cognitive biases as an important ingredient of post-implementation policy evaluation.

Global Government Forum organise a wide range of training seminars on the subject of policy making. Topics include Managing Risk in Remote Policy and Project Teams and Delivering Public Good through Policy. The full list of our policy courses can be found here Civil Service Learning | Global Government Forum.

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About Tony Cash

Tony Cash is an expert on policy, strategy and regulatory best practice. He is a former civil servant and his roles included Head of Strategy and Communications for the Joint Trade Policy Unit and Deputy Director of the Department for Business internal training team. In his role as a training consultant, he has trained people in policy-making best practice and better regulation across the UK and overseas (including Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Dubai, Guernsey, Ireland, Kenya, Malta and South Africa). He has worked with many government organisations on impact assessment. He also provides training on many related subjects including change management, governance, leadership, parliamentary affairs, project management, public service reform, risk management and strategic management. He delivers training in a wide range of formats including online. Tony is also an organisation development expert (MSc OD) and holds qualifications in coaching (Certificate in Executive Coaching), training (CIPD Certificate in Training Practice), project management (PRINCE 2 Foundation and Practitioner) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

One Comment

  1. Kritzo says:

    What an excellent article, thank you Tony! So good to see the awareness of biases becoming a focus for governments. This is one of the reasons why freedom of expression is so important – open robust discussion is the only way to test policies and viewpoints and expose the biases behind them. Now, if only the same can become a focus in climate policy discussions, both for policy and for scientific enquiry!

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