Simplicity is at the root of policy failures – Polly Mackenzie in UnHerd


Simplicity is at the root of policy failures

Whether it’s lockdown regulations or welfare payments, one-size-fits-all is not the answer


An uprising against the hated elite by the people of [checks notes] Islington (Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)

Polly Mackenzie is Director of Demos, a leading cross-party think tank. She served as Director of Policy to the Deputy Prime Minister from 2010-2015.Add to Favourites Add to favourites


May 28, 2020

At school, I always loved the moment in language lessons when you had to learn how to list your siblings. Thanks to my parents’ divorce and remarriages, I have a brother, a sister, a half-sister and three step sisters, which meant I got to show off my mastery of complicated words like stiefschwestern and hermanastras. I pitied the children with boring families and boring things to say like “je suis enfant unique.” What surprised me, though, was that even my best friends could never quite remember which of my sisters belonged to which step parent. We have infinite ability to understand the complexity of our own lives. But when we think about other people? The details get blurred, like the background in a Zoom video.

I was reminded of this very human weakness as I listened to Dominic Cummings exhaustively describe the “complicated, tricky situation” that had led him to drive his family to Durham at the end of March. He seemed to think that “complicated” and “tricky” were evidence that his circumstances were exceptional. Because, like my school friends, he was blind to the complexity of others’ lives — the thousands upon thousands of other parents who also had little children, sick spouses and important jobs.

The government wrote a lockdown policy that was radically different to the norm in our common law system. Under common law, everything is legal unless prohibited by law. During the lockdown the default was the opposite: it was illegal to leave your home unless you had a good excuse. That shift puts an impossible burden on those who draft the law, to think of every single good reason that could arise, in the infinite variety of human experience.

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