Bad Bets, Bad Apples or Bad Policy? ‘Ordeals’ in twenty-first century policymaking

“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 their true needs via their persistence through an arduous application process and to increase targeting efficiency by screening out the less needy and undeserving. A growing body of research that is investigating how ordeals or burdens are enacted, experienced, and distributed finds, however, that the costs imposed by ordeals are often more difficult to bear for those most in need of public benefits, contributing to delays in or denials in access to public benefits that can lead to long-term, life-altering consequences.

Carolyn J. Heinrich, George Eastman Visiting Professor at Balliol College 2022-23, is Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, where she also holds University Distinguished Professorships in both Leadership, Policy, and Organizations and in Political Science at the Vanderbilt College of Arts and Science, and a Professorship in Health Policy in the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.  Her research focuses on education, workforce development, social welfare policy, program evaluation, and public management and performance management. She works directly with federal, state and local governments in her research to improve policy design and program effectiveness and also collaborates with nongovernmental organizations to improve the impacts of economic and social investments in middle-income and developing countries.