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Winners and losers: communicating the potential impacts of policies

4 June 2024



Policymakers or citizens evaluating a policy are rarely given a balanced and easily understood summary of the potential outcomes and impacts. An article in Palgrave Communications reviews current policy option communication across diverse domains such as taxes, health, climate change, and international trade. It assesses how the potential harms and benefits of options are being communicated and how to synthesise the advice and evidence for designing policy communication.

Making an informed decision

To make an informed decision, individuals need to weigh up the potential impacts of different options. Citizens or policymakers evaluating a policy are rarely given a balanced and clear summary of the potential outcomes of their decision. Providing such summaries requires:

  • learning what impacts to consider and identifying the most important effects
  • gathering the evidence
  • communicating that evidence so that it is understood.

While the first two stages are usually well-defined by processes within government, the article found little evidence for how to effectively communicate multiple policy options.

Policy decisions often affect many people, impact different groups in different ways, and cause multi-generational outcomes. Weighing up options for an informed policy decision is difficult and there can be profound costs when communications fail to inform decision makers. For example, lack of clarity about how a tax policy will affect different groups can lead to the adoption of policies that worsen inequality.

The research identified four challenges that make policy option communication particularly difficult compared to individual-level communication:

  • heterogeneity of impacts
  • multiple outcome scales
  • long timescales
  • large uncertainties

Heterogeneity of impacts

Policy options generally have different impacts on different groups (e.g., geographical, sociocultural, demographic or political). Detailing all outcomes for sub-populations may reduce comprehensibility but using a population-wide average can obscure different impacts in different groups.

Three common but incomplete approaches are to:

  • mention only the potential benefits or potential harms (rather than both), which may mislead recipients and constitute a persuasive message.
  • mention only one type of outcome, such as financial but not environmental impacts.
  • describe only the main potential benefit and main potential harm.

Multiple outcome scales

Policies and interventions have diverse outcomes that can be measured in different ways. For instance, a policy may have financial, health, environmental, and employment consequences, each with a separate metric, making it difficult to compare the outcomes.

Communicators sometimes attempt to express all the possible impacts of a policy with a single metric. However, conclusions based on a single metric may not be supported by public audiences or policymakers.

Long timescales

Many individual-level decisions primarily affect the decision-maker or their family over single generations. However, many policy options such as waging war or establishing environmental protections have effects across longer time periods. The impacts of policy-level decisions may also vary through time, requiring communications that describe impacts at several time points.

Large uncertainties

Outcome predictions are more uncertain for policies than for individual-level decisions due to long timescales, complex economic, environmental and social systems that influence policy outcomes, and the lack of well-controlled policy experiments. Fully quantified probability distributions are precise but require the specification of all potential outcomes and are therefore rarely attainable. One feasible alternative is to present a high/low/best estimate of impact.

Impact of the challenges

Heterogeneous impacts, multiple outcome scales, longer timescales and uncertainty make balanced communication of the potential impacts of policy options more difficult than communicating individual-level outcomes. It is not possible to communicate unlimited information but omitting information often creates bias. Partisan communicators exploit this tension by limiting the information to highlight their preferred option, and they create very simple and easily understood messages.

There is a particular tension between two factors:

1. Coverage: The extent to which the communication describes the most important options and their potential outcomes, e.g., who is affected, which outcomes are included, short- and long-term benefits and harms, and uncertainties.

2. Comprehensibility: Whether the communication can be easily understood by the intended audiences in their different contexts.

The bottom line

Providing balanced and comprehensible summaries of detailed policy outcomes is difficult, and one unresolved challenge is how best to approach the necessary omission of information that might be important to some decision makers to keep the summary concise and comprehensible.

The outcomes of the research suggest that the ideal balanced communication would provide appropriate detail in a quickly and easily understood format to help citizens and policy decision-makers apply their own values and priorities to decisions. Whether or not this ideal is achievable in a particular domain, specifying the goal can reveal the empirical questions that guide future progress.

Want to read more

Winners and losers: communicating the potential impacts of policies – Cameron Brick, Alexandra L. J. Freeman, Steven Wooding, William J. Skylark, Theresa M. Marteau NS David J. Spiegelhalter, Palgrave Communications, June 2018

Each fortnight The Bridge summarises a piece of academic research relevant to public sector managers.

Published Date: 4 June 2024