Do you get all the information you need when voting in referendums?

Standing in the polling booth considering the options in front of you, how do you decide which policies to support? Do you feel you have been given clear and balanced information about the potential consequences of your choices? Below, we present a new paper with a key advance about communication.

2-minute video: https://youtu.be/CMJXXNvgq0A

https://youtu.be/CMJXXNvgq0A

For the past two years, Brexit has dominated the political news in the UK. As the second anniversary approaches of the June 2016 referendum on leaving the EU, the ramifications are still unclear. But one thing is certain: there was no clear information available to voters about exactly what the two options would really mean: for them, for the country, or for the rest of the world.

A website was set up with other information on it, in accordance with the European Code of Good Conduct on Referendums. But other than stating that “the authorities must provide objective information” it gives no guidelines on what that means. The UK government’s information leaflet to households was entitled: “Why the Government believes that voting to remain in the European Union is the best decision for the UK”, so it was clearly not intended to be non-partisan on its own.

No wonder people generally feel they weren’t well informed about the true outcomes of their choices. Was this a huge oversight, or typical for other countries?

For contrast, we took a look at Switzerland: a country with regular referendums and a reputation for planning and organisation. Every household is provided with written, balanced information on each referendum, and the government even produces explanation videos. But does this information actually help people? Does the government know how to create high-quality materials?

Surprisingly, even the Swiss government appear to have no guidelines to ensure that referendum options are presented to the population in a balanced, clear and understandable way. So the voters may not have what they need.

How about the information provided to decision-makers who regularly have to choose between policies — that is, do politicians get better information?

The UK government has truly excellent written guidelines on how the potential outcomes of policy options should be researched and assessed — but when it comes to how that information should be presented, there is nothing specific at all. This confusion is reflected in the vast technical reports that are produced to help decisions such as where to build an extra runway in the south east of England. No-one seems to have evaluated what effect those lengthy reports have on their intended readers. Are the reports properly understood by anyone?

So much for the public sector: is there anything to be learned from the private sector on communicating policy options? We wrote to the major management consultancy and accountancy firms to ask whether they had any corporate guidelines on how to present this kind of information to decision-makers. Apparently they do not.

Even the research-driven NGOs which specialise in producing non-partisan information for policy-makers, such as the IPCC and 3ie, appear to have a glaring gap in their guidelines when it comes to how best to communicate that information.

Communicating expected policy outcomes is currently the Wild West. All around the world, the most influential decisions imaginable are being made without well-communicated, balanced information.

So, how should this information be communicated?

In recent decades, medicine has made a conscious move away from the classic paternalism of ‘Trust Us and Do What We Tell You’ towards giving patients unbiased information about their medical treatment options and letting them have more say in what happens to their bodies.

For example, the most recent leaflets for women about whether they should get a mammogram in the UK present both potential benefits and harms of breast screening. This is a far cry from the patronising and patriarchal tone of the 1980s.

American Cancer Society, 1980s
NHS, 2013

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, providing lists of advice and guidelines which are increasingly being adopted throughout the world.

So, can we learn from this work and apply it to the world of policy-making? Yes and no.

Some of the advice on how to present the numbers themselves in a clear and understandable way are bound to apply in just the same way. But that’s only a small part of the problem.

Policies are more complex than options purely for individuals. And some of those complexities make the communication of their outcomes a particular challenge:

  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, all of which are important to consider. 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. Effects over 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 create outcomes that last a very long time — and their effects may change over time.
  4. The outcomes can be extremely uncertain. It is particularly difficult to predict the effects of policies, not only because of vast complexities in the data and modelling but also because accurate prediction relies on social and political processes such as the future decisions of voters and governments.

We searched the world for examples of people trying to overcome these challenges and making a good stab at clear, unbiased policy option communication, whether they be journalists, governments, businesses or NGOs.

One even had a decent go at communicating Brexit — although only on its effect on the agricultural sector (adapted from National Farmer’s Union, 2016). Three trade scenarios (policy options) are discussed, and different effects are provided for different farming industries. This packs in a lot of detail, but the overall gist appears difficult to grasp.

NFU, 2016

Another key example is about climate change (IPCC, 2013). Here the gist is perhaps more easily grasped: the world may become very hot. There are two ‘policy options’ (emissions scenarios RCP 2.6 and 8.5) in two columns. The rows represent different effects, and the globe is a handy way of showing the differential effects across regions. It even includes timescales and uncertainty (subtly shown through stippling).

IPCC, 2013

But how well do these attempts really convey the information to key audiences? It turns out no one knows. Very little work has been done on this key problem. There is a huge amount of research on persuasion, but very little on balanced information. Who is putting these communications in front of their target audience, measuring comprehension, and using those data to improve the communication?

This gap is a major oversight because policy decision-making is so critical.

Our research team is keen to start filling this gap. We’re planning to start measuring what people take away from current policy communications, and see how many lessons from the field of medical communication can be carried over.

Who knows, by the time the next referendum comes round in the UK, we might have some advice for the government on how best to present the options…

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.

Cameron Brick, PhD
cb954@cam.ac.uk

New paper: 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