COVID’s lesson for governments? Don’t cherry-pick advice, synthesize it

Essay by Geoff Mulgan: “Too many national leaders get good guidance yet make poor decisions…Handling complex scientific issues in government is never easy — especially during a crisis, when uncertainty is high, stakes are huge and information is changing fast. But for some of the nations that have fared the worst in the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s a striking imbalance between the scientific advice available and the capacity to make sense of it. Some advice is ignored because it’s politically infeasible or unpragmatic. Nonetheless, much good scientific input has fallen aside because there’s no means to pick it up.

Part of the problem has been a failure of synthesis — the ability to combine insights and transcend disciplinary boundaries. Creating better syntheses should be a governmental priority as the crisis moves into a new phase….

Input from evidence synthesis is crucial for policymaking. But the capacity of governments to absorb such evidence is limited, and syntheses for decisions must go much further in terms of transparently incorporating assessments of political or practical feasibility, implementation, benefits and cost, among many other factors. The gap between input and absorption is glaring.

I’ve addressed teams in the UK prime minister’s office, the European Commission and the German Chancellery about this issue. In responding to the pandemic, some countries (including France and the United Kingdom) have tried to look at epidemiological models alongside economic ones, but none has modelled the social or psychological effects of different policy choices, and none would claim to have achieved a truly synthetic approach.

There are dozens of good examples of holistic thinking and action: programmes to improve public health in Finland, cut UK street homelessness, reduce poverty in China. But for many governments, the capacity to see things in the round has waned over the past decade. The financial crisis of 2007 and then populism both shortened governments’ time horizons for planning and policy in the United States and Europe….

The worst governments rely on intuition. But even the best resort to simple heuristics — for example, that it’s best to act fast, or that prioritizing health is also good for the economy. This was certainly true in 2020 and 2021. But that might change with higher vaccination and immunity rates.

What would it mean to transcend simple heuristics and achieve a truly synthetic approach? It would involve mapping and ranking relevant factors (from potential impacts on hospital capacity to the long-run effects of isolation); using formal and informal models to capture feedbacks, trade-offs and synergies; and more creative work to shape options.

Usually, such work is best done by teams that encompass breadth and depth, disparate disciplines, diverse perspectives and both officials and outsiders. Good examples include Singapore’s Strategy Group (and Centre for Strategic Futures), which helps the country to execute sophisticated plans on anything from cybercrime to climate resilience. But most big countries, despite having large bureaucracies, lack comparable teams…(More)”.