Dr Jurgen De Wispelaere is a Policy Fellow at the IPR, as well as Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Tampere. As part of the latter role, he plays a part in the Kela-led research team preparing the upcoming national basic income experiment in Finland.
Experimenting with basic income: a unique situation
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 the Netherlands will be simultaneously conducting an experiment on a broadly similar target population.
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 randomised controlled 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.
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? 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.
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 and Canada as well as, more recently, Namibia and India. But the lessons to be learned from those experiments are limited by the fact that they took place several decades ago — the world 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.
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. 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 and 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 basic income policy. Although experiments will always have important variation built into 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 this, in turn, helps 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.
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 importantly, 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 brought us to where we are now. Understanding these underlying processes, of course, is also critically important in thinking about where to go next, and 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 these 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 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 an individual — 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.
This piece draws on information from a workshop entitled “Experimenting with Basic Income: Finland and Netherlands”, which was hosted by Kela 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.