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Pandemics, plastic bags and planning: What can data tell us about government policy?

Understanding Society

4 min read Partner content

How do we know if a policy works and gives value for money, or has unintended consequences? The longitudinal data of Understanding Society can help to find the answers.

During the lockdown of January 2021, over-65s took significantly less exercise than before, putting them at risk of poorer health. That’s just one finding of research published in September – and one that can tell us a lot about how data can help us assess government policy.

It was a policy decision forced on government by circumstance, rather than the kind that’s planned and promised in manifestoes, but we need to understand its consequences nonetheless – not least because they could have a knock-on effect on more perennial policy issues. We know that a sedentary lifestyle isn’t good for us, for example, but in older people it’s a particular concern, because it can increase the health risks they face, and cause further frailty. We have an ageing population, with pressure on health and social care services, and the research says it’s “important that resources are allocated to help older adults regain pre-pandemic activity levels” – spending in one area to reduce costs in another.

The research used longitudinal survey data from Understanding Society, which can provide evidence to underpin new policy – or measure policies after they’ve been implemented, and see what the law of unintended consequences has done to politicians’ best intentions.

Smoking and inequality

We know, for example, that increasing the legal age for buying tobacco from 16 to 18 in 2006-7 immediately reduced the number of teenagers who took up smoking. More than that, though, in the years since, the rule change has helped to reduce inequality. Children from poorer backgrounds were more likely to take up smoking, and after the legislation this inequality narrowed “toward zero”

By contrast, the ‘under-occupancy penalty’ – the reduction in housing benefit for some recipients which became known as the ‘bedroom tax’ – was not only controversial, but also not entirely successful. The government’s intention was to curb increases in social housing spending, and to encourage people to move, so that limited housing stock could be reallocated, getting people into properties which better suited their needs.

Research – using data from more than three years before the policy was introduced to over three years afterwards – showed that it “seems to have saved some money – though not as much as expected”, and that it did not encourage people to move. They tended to downsize when they did, but the number of people moving was no higher than it would have been due to natural turnover.

The beauty of longitudinal data

Understanding Society is one of a number of large, long-term population studies in the UK funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, part of UK Research & Innovation. Every year, we ask each member of thousands of the same households across the UK about different aspects of their lives. The data we build up allows researchers in academia, government departments, the third sector and other organisations to understand how people live. More importantly, it can show us how life in the UK is changing and what stays the same over many years.

Climate change

One of the greatest challenges facing governments across the world is the need to reduce emissions and head for ‘net zero’ – and the way in which legislation is introduced can create ideal circumstances for testing policies. Charging people for single-use plastic bags in supermarkets, for example, was introduced in Wales before it came to the rest of the UK, allowing researchers to look at patterns of behaviour in different nations.

In Wales, there was a significant reduction in people using single-use bags, with 74% of our participants there reporting ‘always’ taking their own bag shopping, an increase of 25%. However, there wasn’t much evidence of what the researchers call ‘spillover’ – where one pro-environmental behaviour encourages people to adopt others. One explanation, they suggest, could be that an external ‘nudge’ to change behaviour reduces people’s internal motivation to change other behaviours.

These are just a few examples of how Understanding Society data can be used to assess policy. We cover COVID-19, education, employment, ethnicity, health, social attitudes, and transport, among many other subjects, allowing researchers to track patterns in UK lives over decades.

To find out more about Understanding Society, and how you can use our data, contact the Policy and Partnerships Unit.

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