Systems approach linking policy,
regulation, law, risk, costs and benefits

All activities involve some risk, some uncertainty in the outcome, the balance of costs and benefits. To achieve the purpose of an activity we have to regulate the activity's risks effectively, within the limits of our resources.

Breathing results in obvious benefits but risks infection with airborne diseases - there is risk, uncertainty of outcome, but the benefits outweigh the costs. When swimming underwater, the cost of breathing greatly increases altering the cost-benefit ratio so the costs now outweigh the benefits and we hold our breath. Breathing is regulated: it is freely expressed when reasonably safe but repressed when it risks too much harm. But regulations don't have to be black-or-white. Another regulatory option might be to use a snorkel or scuba gear, but both have their own costs and benefits which will depend in part on our purpose for swimming underwater. The snorkel may be good enough and the only cost-effective option for swimming underwater on holiday, for recreational purposes, but for commercial purposes scuba gear may be cost-effective.

Making decisions is like a journey. We start with a problem, A, and want to get to a solution, B. We need to be clear where we are and where we want to get to. Internally our purpose is to get from A to B. Externally our behaviour, our method of regulating our location, may take many different paths between A and B or even use different vehicles. This means people may share a common purpose but argue about the best route or best vehicle. But sometimes people arguing about the best route or vehicle come to realise that they really disagree about the purpose. In drugs policy clarifying the purpose is a crucial issue: is the purpose to reduce/eliminate all drug use or is it to reduce/eliminate all harmful drug use? Or is it in fact both, one rule for minorities and another for the majority? If its the latter then they are really disagreeing about the problem, seeing the drug problem as only concerning the minorities involved with drugs classified as illegal while alcohol and tobacco are an entirely separate problem.

Where do costs and benefits fit in? A simplistic view is that we start with costs, the problem, and that our regulatory method aims to turn them into benefits, the solution. But that is unrealistic. The problem is never all bad, it will have some benefits and the solution won't ever be all good, it will have costs. And the various alternate methods, the options for regulatory behaviour, will also have varying costs and benefits. And each will have some uncertainty attached. We also have to consider our resources - the method we chose must be cost-effective. Also a particular regulatory option will be a benefit to some people but a cost to others - it will have unequal impact.
Suddenly things have become very complex. Rather than set out to get all this relevant information it is easier simply to get all those affected by the decision involved in the decision making process. The decision can then evolve and emerge from discussion rather than be planned by expert decision makers.

So individuals, organisations and Government attempt to regulate their activities to maximise benefits while minimising costs, in the most efficient way. The Government is responsible for regulating the social system, a complex, developing system made of diverse and often conflicting groups. Individuals must regulate the complex developing system they are responsible for, themselves, made up of diverse and often conflicting motivations. No Government, organisation or individual knows how to do this - there is no reason they should - though many present their guesses as certain truth. Without knowledge Government's decision-making must rely on policy and individuals' decision-making must rely on attitudes.

The less decision-making depends on conscious objective information, the more it must depend on unconscious subjective attitudes. These unconscious attitudes are not consciously chosen but are adopted unconsciously from role models: parents, peers, employers, society. Humans are social animals and the natural default is that individuals imitate the behaviour of parents and 'the herd' unless there is reason to do otherwise. This is the low risk option: do what everyone around does. In contrast, human development - collectively and individually - has depended upon innovation and altering natural behaviour to alter the environment, a high-risk strategy. Had humans prohibited the use of fire because of the natural fear of harm we might still be in the caves. As humans develop, collectively and individually, they increasingly rely on information gained from experience of the group, consensus information, a step away from subjective experience toward objective evidence. Science and rational conscious decision-making aim to depend on consensus information that has been tested in novel situations to confirm that the information is correct. Such information then becomes knowledge.

Government's modernisation campaign:

The current government has introduced a programme of government modernisation aiming to rationalise Government policy and individual attitudes by encouraging decision-making to become more conscious, based more on objective evidence than on ideology. Decision-making is judgement. Judgement reached before evidence is obtained is literally prejudice - pre-judgement, judgement before evidence. All children in the UK are taught about conscious decision-making in the Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum (PSHE). The World Health Organisation supports conscious decision-making as a vital part of mental health in their Mental Health Guide to Problem Solving. The Government has reviewed the processes of making policy, regulations, risk assessments and the use of science in policy and is actively encouraging adoption of best practise.

Government's Policy Hub:
"From Opinion-Based Policy to Evidence-Based Policy:
Evidence-based policy has been defined as "the integration of experience, judgement and expertise with the best available external evidence from systematic research" (Davies, 19991). This involves a balance between professional judgement and expertise on the one hand and the use of valid, reliable and relevant research evidence on the other.
Gray (1997) has suggested that evidence-based policy and practice involves a shift away from opinion-based decision making to evidence-decision making.

Evidence-based decision making draws heavily upon the findings of scientific research (including social scientific research) that has been gathered and critically appraised according to explicit and sound principles of scientific inquiry. The opinions and judgements of experts that are based upon up-to-date scientific research clearly constitute high quality valid and reliable evidence. Those opinions that are not based upon such scientific evidence, but are unsubstantiated, subjective and opinionated viewpoints do not constitute high quality, valid and reliable evidence".

However the Government has found immense resistance among Government Departments to change. They describe an 'organisational culture' that is risk-averse. Departments may do what they do simply because they have always done that. There is also a 'blame' culture. In short Departments, like individuals, are dependent on unconscious habits, fail to learn from experience and tend to blame others for problems. Blame is a strong indicator of unconscious decision making: all responsibility is placed on one group or individual, contrary to evidence.

Government also seeks social inclusion and integration. This would encourage the full diverse range of organisations and individuals to participate in policy-making and implementation, the co-production of policy and co-responsibility for implementation. This aims to remove the 'us-and-them' division between public and Government, the powerless and the powerful, and so reduce conflict. Public involvement is then a key aim of the Government's modernisation programme.

See our summary attempting to integrate Government decision-making principles with their practical guidance.

Law and legal decision making:

Unlike the top-down, designed approach of the Government's modernisation campaign, the legal system has evolved from the bottom-up, from citizens demanding justice from the state. Naturally enough the courts agree that governments' legal decisions should be within the limits of the law made by Parliament and for the purposes defined by law. But the courts have established that that it not sufficient. In addition decisions must be rational and must follow fair procedures.
Rationality and fairness are two of the qualities that make potentially conscious humans different from unconscious animals. These qualities are emerging as humans evolve. The psychologist Carl Jung suggested that conscious humans develop two information processing functions that unconscious humans and animals lack: intellect, for analysing objective logical relationships (e.g. "is it true?"), and feeling, for analysing subjective values (e.g. "is it good?"). These appear equivalent to the legal concepts of rationality and fairness.

Further information:

More on legal decision-making at

More on Government decision-making.

The systems approach, or 'systems thinking', is the basis of the Government's modernisation programme. For a friendly introduction to the scientific background of the systems approach - seeing the bigger picture - see The Macroscope - a new world scientific system.