The New Science of Communicating Policy Options

How to support citizens and policymakers with effective communication.

Posted Jun 14, 2018

We all make personal decisions about our health, money, and relationships. To make decisions that align with our goals and values, we need to understand the expected outcomes of the different options. In recent decades, governments, medical professionals, and businesses are moving away from the classic paternalism of ‘Trust Us and Do What We Tell You’  towards informing individuals and giving us the freedom to choose. For example, recent leaflets for women about whether they should get a mammogram now often present both potential benefits and harms of breast screening, and present the situation as a reasonable choice rather than a necessity. To support this new vision of individual decision-making, researchers have been working on how best to convey both upsides and downsides of different options.

Beyond individual choices, businesses, governments, and societies make policy decisions about the economy, trade, the environment, and healthcare. These choices are hugely important, affecting large groups of people and sometimes over generations, but it is difficult to understand the whole picture. When aiming to impartially communicate the possible effects of policies, how can we hit the most important points? A simple infographic might be easy to read, but at the cost of leaving out most information. A 70-page document with complex tables would be detailed, but may be difficult to understand, particularly for some audiences.

Vote Leave, UK
Brief, comprehensible, but fails to mention benefits (and may be inaccurate).
Source: Vote Leave, UK

We find it is even harder to communicate policies in a balanced way than individual decisions. For example, if a person is voting on an issue such as Brexit (the United Kingdom leaving the European Union), what details do they need to know? Brexit will affect many different sectors of the population in many different ways. Its ramifications will spread across the globe and through many generations. Which of these aspects might a voter or a policymaker wish to know? How should such complex information be laid out clearly?

In a new open-access paper, we present the first overview of this area and point the way towards finding solutions. We collected examples of current attempts at balanced policy communications across diverse domains such as taxes, health, climate change, and international trade. We then reviewed current policy communication guidance from governments and organizations. In a third review, we collected the evidence for communication effectiveness, which turned out very sparse. The overall goal was to get a sense of how policies are currently communicated and what evidence exists for whether these communications actually inform recipients.

The paper identified four reasons why policy option communication is particularly difficult. Compared to individual outcomes, communicating policy outcomes often have:

  1. Different effects on different people. Which groups (demographic, regional) should be described separately? How do we present the winners and losers from a policy decision so that audiences can balance these effects?
  2. Multiple outcomes. Policies are full of trade-offs. As financial costs go up, problems like health and pollution often go down, and each is measured by a different metric. How can we present multiple outcomes with different metrics in brief communications to allow easy comparisons?
  3. Long timescales. Individual choices often have relatively short-term consequences, and rarely go beyond our lifespans. Some policy choices, for example on environmental issues, are expected to produce outcomes that last a very long time.
  4. Large uncertainties. Processes like warming from climate change are difficult to predict not only because of vast complexities in the data and modeling but also because accurate prediction also relies on social and political processes, such as the future decisions of governments around the world.

Below are two examples of policy communication that try to manage the four complexities above. First is a Brexit communication (adapted from National Farmer’s Union, 2016) that is much more complete than the famous bus. Three trade scenarios are discussed, and different effects are provided for different farming industries. This packs in a lot of detail, but the overall gist is difficult to understand.

NFU, used with permission
Source: NFU, used with permission

Another key example focuses on climate change (IPCC, 2013). What I like best about this graphic is that the gist is easily grasped—the world may become very hot—but there are also many details. This graphic also shows different effects across regions and includes multiple types of outcomes across two emissions scenarios (similar to policy options). It even includes timescales and uncertainty (subtly shown through stippling).

IPCC, 2015, used with permission
Source: IPCC, 2015, used with permission

Overall, there is no standard yet for how to tackle the four challenges, but we hope that this progress will help researchers and communicators develop more effective strategies. This paper identifies policy option communication as a new field related to individual risk communication, and identifies the key differences that distinguish them. At the end of the day, we all rely on governments and businesses to implement informed and thoughtful policy choices.

Do you have good or bad examples of how policy options are communicated, whether as graphics, tables, or documents? We'd love to see them: please send us a note.

References

Brick, C., Freeman, A. L. J., Wooding, S., Skylark, W. J., Marteau, T., & Spiegelhalter, D. J. (2018). Winners and losers: Communicating the potential impacts of policies. Palgrave Communications. doi.org/10.1057/s41599-018-0121-9

Open access PDF: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0121-9

IPCC. (2013). AR5 synthesis report. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

National Farmer’s Union. (2016). Implications of a UK exit from the EU for British agriculture. Retrieved from https://www.nfuonline.com/assets/61142

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