Trial and error is the most successful problem solving technique

So said Tim Harford (known to many as the presenter of Radio 4′s More or Less as well as a distinguished economics writer) last night at the Royal Society of Arts. Harford was kicking-off a week long series of talks to promote his new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure and was making the point that the modern world is too complex for us to hope to solve many problems by simply getting the best brains to think up the one answer. A far better route to take is to experiment with many different solutions and see what works.

Tim Harford applied that both to business – a business culture that sees numerous different start-ups tried out is more likely to succeed – and to politics – piloting and testing a wide variety of policies is better than relying on the one magic solution. Especially as the one magic solution often turns out to be not so magical and not that much of a solution.

Yet in politics there is often a deep reluctance to test. Sometimes it’s seen as a matter of principle – the policy should be the same everywhere with no postcode lotteries, thank you very much. Sometimes it’s seen as a measure of political leadership – good leaders are strong leaders are people who know their minds are people who don’t need to test.

He put up a big photo of George W Bush and John Kerry from the 2004 US Presidential election and pointed out that the election could be summarised as the one who said they were sure about everything beat the one who said they weren’t so sure and sometimes changed their mind.

The immediate political implication in the UK, though Tim Harford didn’t explore this point, is that having a diversity of approaches to supplying public services can harness the benefits of experimentation and learning. That means relaxing about the role of the likes of not-for-profit firms, mutuals and charities in experimenting with different ways of providing services, rather than seeking to have it all run through the one local council direct provision route. It also means giving up the idea that all should be ordered from Whitehall towards some mythical uniform nirvana (which never ends up uniform, of course).

For Liberal Democrats it means kicking the pernicious habit of saying how much we like diversity and local choices but so often finding a reason as to why on this particular occasion it’s just not quite right, yet. It also requires a willingness to defend variation rather than bemoan postcode lotteries. As I wrote before:

There is no inherent reason why the population of a small Scottish island should have the same health priorities as that of a densely populated London borough. There is no inherent reason why a swathe of rural Wales should have the same transport priorities as a chunk of urban Midlands.

The problem is not variation. The problem is when variation happens for the wrong reasons. And so the answer is not trying to impose uniformity, it’s about greater local decision making – so the variation is for the right reasons, not the wrong ones.

It’s the lottery part of postcode lotteries which is the problem, not the postcode part.

(And of course remember that the logic of the benefits of testing apply to political campaign techniques too. When was the last time your local party tested out different versions of mailings to promote postal votes for example? Or different formats of appeal letters? Or different ordering of questions on residents surveys? I’ve done all three and know my work is much the better for it. So if you’re not in the experimenting club, do give it a whirl.)

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