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Comparing Basic Income Experiments: Lessons and Challenges

Julkaistu 14.11.2016

In Europe we are faced with a unique situation: in 2015/2016 not one but two countries started down the road of piloting a basic income experiment. There are important similarities between the experiments planned in Finland and the Netherlands.

All going well, both countries hope to get started in early 2017 and run the experiment for two years. And in both cases, for a variety of reasons, the plan is to pilot an experiment limited to social assistance recipients.

In short, Finland and Netherlands will be simultaneously conducting an experiment on a broadly similar target population.

On 8 November Kela organised a workshop “Experimenting with Basic Income: Finland and Netherlands” with the aim of exchanging views between researchers involved in the planning of the Finnish basic income experiment and researchers from the Netherlands currently preparing the experiments planned for early 2017 in Utrecht, Wageningen, Tilburg and Groningen. The presentations at the workshop were highly informative and stimulated a debate of great interest to those who have been following recent developments in this area.

Presentations were recorded and can be viewed here. 

Differences between the Finnish and the Dutch experiment

There are of course also important differences. First and foremost, the experimental design in both countries is very different. For example, Finland will pilot a national RTC trial with a single basic income model, while in the Netherlands different municipalities will experiment with a variety of models.

There are also very interesting differences in terms of the political process associated with the basic income experiments: where Finland’s experiment was initiated by the Finnish government and is therefore highly centralised, the Dutch experiments were pushed onto the policy agenda by local NGOs or municipal decision-makers against considerable resistance from the central government.

Finally, Finland and the Netherlands are very different types of welfare states, and we can expect variation in welfare institutions and processes to affect both the political decision-making process and the actual design of the proposed experiments.

Why compare?

This combination of two experiments simultaneously taking place in countries that differ in important respects is a unique situation that opens up the possibility of engaging in serious comparative research.

Why compare?

To my mind there are three reasons why both projects should engage in close collaboration and why we should adopt a comparative approach to studying what happens in Finland and the Netherlands.

Exchanging information benefits both experiments

The first reason is practical. Piloting a basic income scheme is a complex endeavour and those involved in designing and implementing the experiment run into a lot of problems along the way. There is much to learn from experiments carried out in the past in the US or Canada and, more recently, Namibia or India.

But the lessons to be learned from those experiments are limited by the fact that they took place several decades ago — the worlds has moved on quite a bit since the 1970s — or that they operated in an environment that is very different from that of an advanced welfare state inside the EU.

For this reason it makes sense that the experiments about to take off in Finland and the Netherlands may be able to help each other more than any of those that took place before.

Exchanging information about hurdles encountered as well as proposed solutions may offer key guidance that could benefit both experiments.

Building up cumulative knowledge

A second reason for thinking comparatively relates to building up cumulative knowledge about basic income design, implementation and effects.

Despite a massive increase in media and policy attention, we actually don’t know that much about basic income and many arguments doing the rounds run the gamut from “reasonable expectation” (when grounded in good theory or analogous reasoning from other policy areas) to wild speculation (in other cases).

There is a simple reason for that: basic income has not been implemented in a way that allows for robust insights.

The recent interest in pilots and experiments offers a great opportunity to (partly) rectify this problem, provided we adopt an approach that allows for systematically comparing design, implementation, results as well as the underlying policy process. There is little to be gained from experiments that make it impossible to compare results in any meaningful way.

Streamlining experimental design as much as possible to facilitate valid comparisons during and after the pilot — e.g., by standardising baseline surveys, indicators and measurement instruments where possible — is of immense importance in terms of furthering our global knowledge about bias income policy.

Although experiments will always have important variation built-in to them, given the specific context in which they operate, when carefully coordinated they will tell us how to interpret design differences and their effects on the outcomes and therefore help us understand which outcomes are unique to a specific experimental setting and which can be generalised across and reflect common results of instituting a basic income.

Understanding the underlying processes

A third important reason pertains to the politics of basic income pilot experiments. The dramatic increase in media and policy attention in the span of a mere three years has taken everyone — advocates and critics alike — by surprise.

We know next to nothing about the factors that explain why basic income has suddenly become politique du jour amongst the political elites. (Sure, we all have out little pet theories, but without systematic analysis and evidence, that is exactly all they are!) Equally if not more important, we are only beginning to understand the political drivers of basic income policy development more generally.

Against this uncertain background, the experiments play a crucial role in uncovering in a systematic manner the policy and political processes that have taken us where we are now. Understanding these underlying processes is of course also critically important in thinking about where to go next, how to make use of basic income experiments and their results in due course to move policy development along.

Having experiments taking place in two countries as diverse as Finland and the Netherlands offers a unique opportunity to study the political forces at play — an opportunity not to be wasted.

Two intriguing aspects of the differences in both jurisdictions merit particularly careful examination.

First, comparing the top-down approach adopted in Finland with the bottom-up approach that characterises the Dutch context allows us to examine closely the complicated political process by which an idea moves onto the policy agenda and — hopefully — soon enters the implementation phase. Real world policy development of the basic income proposal will have to make sense of the multi-level nature of its design and implementation.

Second, there are important lessons to be learned in terms of framing the basic income debate: where Finland has embraced the experiment as a natural continuation of several decades of intense and complicated debate about basic income, in the Netherlands the experiments proceed while strategically avoiding any connotation with the basic income idea.

Understanding the framing process will help political strategy in overcoming public and political resistance of the basic income idea.

Challenges to to adopting a comparative approach

There are challenges to adopting a comparative approach to basic income experimentation.

Some of the challenges are related to each experiment as such — e.g., maintaining the political momentum to carry out the experiment in a manner that produces reliable results — while others pertain to the demands of coordination between experimental teams.

Examples of the latter include the need to adapt the research design and experimental setting to maximise comparability, the sharing of information and regular communication across jurisdictions — keeping in mind that each project is highly politicised! — and the building of a cross-country collaborative research network dedicated to supporting and evaluating ongoing and future basic income experiments.

There is much work to be done, but the opportunity is there for grabbing.

Jurgen De Wispelaere
University of Tampere / University of Bath

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