Friday, August 17, 2012

[EQ] Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials

Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials

Laura Haynes, Visiting Researcher at King’s College London

Owain Service, Deputy Director of the Behavioural Insights Team
Ben Goldacre,  Research Fellow at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

Professor David Torgerson, Director of the York Trials Unit

Published by UK Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team – June 2012


Available online at:

“……Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) are the best way of determining whether a policy is working. They are now used extensively in international development, medicine, and business to identify which policy, drug or sales method is most effective. They are also at the heart of the Behavioural Insights Team’s methodology.

However, RCTs are not routinely used to test the effectiveness of public policy interventions in the UK. We think that they should be.

What makes RCTs different from other types of evaluation is the introduction of a randomly assigned control group, which enables you to compare the effectiveness of a new intervention against what would have happened if you had changed nothing.

The introduction of a control group eliminates a whole host of biases that normally complicate the evaluation process – for example, if you introduce a new “back to work” scheme, how will you know whether those receiving the extra support might not have found a job anyway?....”


Executive Summary


Part 1 -What is an RCT and why are they important?

What is a randomised controlled trial?

The case for RCTs - debunking some myths

1.We don’t necessarily know‘what works’

2. RCTs don’t have to cost a lot of money

3. There are ethical advantages to using RCTs

4. RCTs do not have to be complicated or difficult to run

PART II - Conducting an RCT: 9 key steps


Step1: Identify two or more policy interventions to compare

Step 2:Define the outcome that the policy is intended to influence

Step 3:Decide on the randomisation unit

Step 4:Determine how many units are required for robust results

Step 5: Assign each unit to one of the policy interventions using a robustly random method

Step 6: Introduce the policy interventions to the assigned groups


Step 7: Measure the results and determine the impact of the policy interventions


Step 8: Adapt your policy intervention to reflect your findings

Step 9: Return to step 1


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