Bad bets, bad apples, or bad policy? Should ordeals be a policy tool of the Twenty-first Century?

Professor Carolyn Heinrich gives the George Eastman Lecture, introduced by Professor Ngaire Woods.

“Ordeals” are a tool of public policy that have been used in public programmes to screen out potential programme beneficiaries who are considered “bad bets”—those who benefit too little to warrant the public expenditures—and “bad apples,” those who are viewed as undeserving for reasons of irresponsible, immoral, or illegal behaviour.

The idea behind their use is to impose costs on access to public benefits (i.e., requiring greater outlays of effort) that induce applicants to reveal or signal their “true preferences and needs” via their persistence through an arduous application process (Schuck & Zeckhauser, 2006). The use of ordeals is also rationalised by neoclassical economic arguments suggesting that in the rationing of limited public resources, these types of mechanisms can increase the targeting efficiency of programs by screening out the less needy and undeserving, or prioritising access to benefits for the “good apples” and “good bets.”

The eligibility tests and administrative procedures applied in screening applicants serve a legitimate purpose and act as a sorting function that is intended to increase the chances that those who ultimately receive program benefits are “good bets.” Because the costs of collecting ample and accurate information to determine who is most in need and likely to benefit from public programs are not trivial, the shifting of these burdens to the applicants serves a secondary purpose of reducing public administration costs.

However, researchers drawing on the conceptual lens of administrative burdens have shown that the shifting of burdens from the state to those apply for services or supports (and organisations that endeavor to help them) does not come cheaply. A rapidly expanding body of research that I will describe in this lecture—including my own work in three different policy areas that applies various methodologies—has investigated how these ordeals or burdens are enacted, experienced and distributed, with both intended and unintended consequences. In fact, there is growing consensus that the costs imposed by ordeals tend to be more difficult to bear for those who are most in need of the public programmes, contributing to delays in or denials of access to public benefits that can lead to long-term, life-altering consequences.