‘We have huge potential to make positive change’

Ella Rhodes on the British Psychological Society’s ‘Psychological Government’ programme.

An ambitious initiative from the British Psychological Society aims to bring psychological evidence to central government. The programme aims to develop a sustainable, effective and inclusive approach to policy-making by highlighting to government the importance of considering people, and their psychology, throughout the policy-making process.

Initially the Psychological Government programme will feature a series of policy briefings, including a report informed by interviews with psychologists working in government, and an ongoing thought leadership campaign driven in partnership with an expert steering group. An introductory briefing on how psychology can be used to develop better policy has already been sent to parliamentarians (tinyurl.com/v5om9md)

Policy Advisor Saskia Perriard-Abdoh [pictured above] is leading the programme: ‘The emergence of “place-making”, “people-centred policies” and “wellbeing economics” initiatives taking shape throughout all levels of government are all clear signs that “business as usual” is no longer sustainable, or even preferable. Ultimately, understanding and supporting people – whether it be people responsible for designing policies, people affected by these policies, or people who deliver and enact these policies – will be key.’

BPS Director of Policy Kathryn Scott said: ‘Our political landscape is rapidly evolving. And so is the way we work as Psychologists. Through our evidence, experience and understanding we have huge potential to make positive change. The Psychological Government Programme is an opportunity for us to bring together and build on the expertise of our members to demonstrate the case that policy decisions which are underpinned by an understanding of how people think, feel and behave leads to better policy outcomes.’

We spoke to the members of the Psychological Government Steering Group about their motivations for taking part, and the challenges and opportunities that may be met when bringing psychology to government.

John Amaechi OBE, psychologist and founder and CEO of Amaechi Performance Systems, whose work has intersected with government over the years, said he was familiar with some of the frustrations of embedding a non-partisan, evidence-based approach into policy-making. ‘The battle with partisanship is always going to be difficult. When you tell a politician that their policy is unlikely to work, we’ll have to think about how that’s framed to ensure that people realise that what you’re saying is not a partisan statement – it’s a statement about the efficacy based on what the evidence tells us.’ Amaechi said he was particularly excited to be part of the group given the potential to make a difference as well as to tackle the unintended consequences of government policies in future. ‘If psychology being a part of the policy-making process, leveraging that expertise and allowing the evidence to be heard, eliminates some of those negative unintended consequences… then a job has been done here.’

Dr Eleonore Batteux, a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Centre for the Study of Decision-Making Uncertainty (UCL), has previously worked as a Behavioural Insights Research Fellow at the Department for Education (DfE) and during her PhD researched how we make decisions on behalf of other people. Batteux said she had always believed that the world would be a better place if governments took more notice of psychology and embedded psychology throughout the policy-making process. ‘Ultimately, this should shift policies towards outcomes which are more considerate of people’s identity and well-being.’

Given her experience in the DfE Batteux said she knew that, to be convincing, the group would need to present a clear case for why psychology should have a pivotal role and develop a discourse which speaks to government. ‘Economists have been doing this well for years, and I see no reason why psychological insights cannot be just as powerful. Our job on the steering group is to develop the vision and strategy to make it happen.’

Chair of the BPS Division of Health Psychology and Reader in Health Psychology and Behaviour Change (University of Bedfordshire), Dr Angel Chater said the government was increasingly interested in psychology’s role in meeting its objectives. ‘It would be incredibly helpful if we were all approaching big issues such as ‘prevention’ with a psychologically-informed viewpoint.’

While health is Chater’s main interest she said psychological government would encompass much more given psychologists’ expertise in thoughts, feelings, behaviours, what influences decision-making and bias. ‘I would like to see government take action to put people back into their own lives. Too often we hear the use of stigmatising language that determines a person by their situation or condition. For example “obese people”, or “bereaved children”. We should not be defining people in this way. Instead, they are individuals living with obesity or children who have experienced a bereavement. These tiny nuances of language can psychologically make a huge difference to that person’s inner dialogue and how they are treated by society. A psychological government can take leadership to change the systemic way that currently causes such unconscious stigma and detriment.’

Professor of Social and Political Psychology Gavin B. Sullivan (Coventry University) researches topics including political disengagement, disaster preparedness, nationalism, political populism, and collective emotions. ‘I see the steering group as a chance to be involved in developing evidence-based practices and policies that draw upon robust psychological and social scientific research that uses a wide variety of methods, while also advocating a reflexive approach towards issues of values and ideology.’

Sullivan said the group will need to present information and arguments in a way that politicians will consider seriously, build trust in the expertise of psychologists, provide evidence they see as useful and present implementable approaches. ‘The steering group will need to balance theories and evidence as well as represent criticisms that are of a more ideological flavour – an awareness of these differences and the ability to “bracket” them while focusing on what can be done will be a challenge. The opportunity is to highlight psychology’s potentially central role in addressing debates and issues through evidence and approaches from its sub-disciplines and provide a social and psychological lens through which the contributions of other disciplines can also be presented.’

After an undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Swansea Rob Hutton worked in the USA in human factors and ergonomics mainly focusing on defence – including how people solve problems and make decisions. In 2008 he returned to the UK, after also working with nurses, weather forecasters and air-traffic controllers, to work with BAE Systems on human factors.

Now Hutton has his own research and consultancy company, Trimetis Ltd, working largely in defence and is a Senior Lecturer in Applied Cognitive Psychology (Nottingham Trent University). Given his interest in decision-making he said he was keen to explore this in an entirely new context. ‘I’m really excited to jump into this policy-making world to understand who the decision-makers are, what the difficult decisions are, why they’re difficult, and how we can help them. I’m also interested in what our output will look like so that it can actually make a difference. If we were designing a technology we’d talk about usability, is it useable and is it useful? And we can talk about the same things for government.’

Senior Research Fellow and Health Psychologist, Emily McBride (UCL), has worked in clinical, research and policy areas through her career. As well as experience in public health and working on a project commissioned by Public Health England, McBride previously worked as a Senior Advisor in Behavioural Science within the Strategy and Implementation team in the Department of Health and Social Care.

She said her experience of working in a fast-paced government department had been incredibly challenging because it pushed her out of her comfort zone, but in a very positive sense. ‘The people there were really open to hearing about different ways of thinking and different working models... They are not experts in one specific area but they need to consult with experts to make policy, through collaborating and speaking with various people who make high-level decisions.’ While there is often some misunderstanding around what psychology is about, McBride said she hoped people’s inherent interest in humans would help engage politicians with the topic.

Professor Jim McManus, Director of Public Health (Hertfordshire County Council) will be on hand as a special advisor to the steering group thanks to his involvement in policy work, at local and national levels, for the last 30 years. McManus said he would like to see psychology become a go-to subject for government as well as more psychologists becoming involved with shaping public policy – locally and nationally.

He said there was a need to consider different ways of policy-making in the devolved nations of the UK when some areas of interest for psychologists were devolved including education and social care. ‘I think that means two things one is that we need to be able to work with devolved nations but the second is we’ve almost got a natural experiment within the UK of four different policy-making systems… what are we going to learn from that? What lessons are we going to draw about public policy being done differently in four different parts of the UK that we can share?’

Dr Tony Munton has worked in policy research for most of his career in central and local government, nationally and internationally, as well as in the private and third sectors. He has worked as a policy specialist in the Department for Education’s Sure Start Unit, for the Home Office as Assistant Director to the Chief Scientist, and as Head of Research at the Office for Criminal Justice Reform at Ministry of Justice. Later he started his own company, RTK Ltd, which conducts independent evaluations, evidence reviews and data analysis for clients in the public, private and third sectors.

Munton said he couldn’t resist joining the steering group. ‘We are at a really fascinating point in the development of social policy in this country. Progressive politics is in crisis virtually everywhere. There seems to be a growing consensus that our system needs to address some fundamental questions about the kind of society we want our children to live in, and that the answers are likely to herald some fundamental reconstruction. To quote one former prime minister, “we need a re-imagining of the modern economy”.’

Chair of the British Psychological Society’s Political Psychology Section Dr Ashley Weinberg (University of Salford) said he, and others in the BPS, had been interested in the role of psychology in promoting policy change for many years. ‘I’d like to think that psychology has a lot to offer and it’s great there’s increased opportunity for us to put that before policy makers and others who might find it useful and for whom it might make a positive difference, particularly if that means things that affect every day folk are going to be improved in some way.’

Weinberg said that he was aware of the challenges of bringing psychology into the heart of government, not least the intense workloads many politicians experience. ‘There isn’t the time to sit down and digest a 100-page report or think “I wonder what the BPS think about this?”. If there’s some kind of initiative that means that they don’t have to go through that process because we’re making information readily available to them then that can only be a good thing.’

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