Can we use fairness as a design principle for policies, processes, projects, products and services?

Defining fairness

Before we can answer this, we need to define fairness.

In late 2021 we proposed five Fair Necessities as forming the basis for a fair society:

We defined each of the ‘fair necessities’ as follows:

  • FAIR ESSENTIALS / Everyone should have their basic needs met so that no one lives in poverty, and everyone can play a constructive role in society
  • FAIR OPPORTUNITIES / Everyone should have a decent chance to succeed in life, so we should remove the key barriers that prevent people from having equal opportunities
  • FAIR REWARDS / Everyone’s hard work should be rewarded on the basis of their contribution to our society and economy
  • FAIR EXCHANGE / Everyone should contribute to society by paying the taxes that they owe, and in return they should be supported by society when they need it
  • FAIR TREATMENT / Everyone should be treated according to need, enjoying equal respect and equal influence on decisions made in their name

Then we ran a nationally representative survey of 3,140 adults across Britain in April 2022 to ask what people thought of our definition of fairness.

The survey results showed that there is very strong public support for these five ‘fair necessities’, with 74% agreeing or strongly agreeing with them overall.

Here is the full breakdown:

Fairness and public policy

When thinking about how to improve policy making by central and local government, it can be helpful to think in terms of the three Ps – process, people, and politics.


The Institute for Government published a report in March 2022 called Better Policy Making, which identified a set of ‘chronic policy problems’ such as low productivity, poor further education, regional inequality, and crises in housing and social care. It suggested that these issues all stem from a set of weaknesses in the way that the government designs and delivers policies. These include short-termism, a deficit of specialist knowledge, poor implementation, poor cross-government working and Whitehall’s resistance to learning from outside. The Wonk Watch blog wrote about this report, agreeing with many of its conclusions while criticising it for being too “Whitehall-centric”, and for ignoring the fact that many of these policy problems also require confronting powerful vested interests (such as homeowners).


Failures in policy making were the theme of another report published in March 2022 by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, and authored by Jonathan Slater, former permanent secretary at the Department for Education (Fixing Whitehall’s broken policy machine). Slater argues that civil service policy advice is “too often disconnected from reality” because Whitehall officials are not expected to engage with the public, with the result that civil servants show “surprisingly little interest” in what those who use or deliver public services think.


In a blog post, Why is British politics broken? (paywall), Sam Freedman (himself a senior fellow at the Institute for Government) identified three ‘destructive trends’ in politics. One was “a set of demographic shifts that have made older homeowners the key voter group; creating a dramatic divergence between good policy and good politics”, which means that “protecting the value of property has become paramount to winning elections”. This has thwarted much-needed policies to tax wealth more, to reform the planning system, to build onshore wind farms, and to invest in childcare and education. Freedman called on today’s politicians to follow the example of previous governments who made a positive case for radical reform, even if it went against powerful vested interests, pointing out that “public policy isn’t supposed to be an accounting exercise; it’s the way we build a better world together”. He quoted Keynes, who wrote in 1925 that when we’re discussing the ideal future state of society, this “has to be tackled in the first instance from the ethical side rather than the standpoint of technical economic efficiency”. As Freeman notes, “the welfare state wasn’t created because we counted the pennies in the jar and found we’d saved up enough to establish the NHS. We took a punt and built the future we wanted – and, by creating a more inclusive economy, that future then paid for itself.”

Fairness can be used as a design principle when it comes to each of the three Ps.


There are plenty of voices out there calling for formal measures to require policymakers to take issues of fairness, justice and equality into account when designing (and delivering) policies. For example, the Equality Trust and Just Fair are spearheading the #1forEquality campaign, calling on central government to enact the ‘socio-economic duty’, section 1 of The Equality Act 2010, which would require public bodies (such as local authorities) to adopt transparent and effective measures to address the inequalities that result from differences in occupation, education, place of residence or social class.

The Today for Tomorrow campaign is promoting a Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, which  would require the government to act in the interest of future generations by working to prevent long-term risks from materialising and giving them a voice in decision-making. Fair by Design collaborates with regulators, government, businesses, and the social justice sector to design out the ‘poverty premium’ (the extra costs people on low incomes and in poverty pay for essential products and services). These are all good examples of how the government could do a better job of embedding fairness principles into the policy making process.


Some people think that civil servants should be more specialised, others that specialisation is part of the problem. Both arguments are true in some respects. And both are consistent with Jonathan Slater’s contention that civil servants need to be more exposed to the reality of other people’s lives (as well as being drawn from a more diverse group in society). And as our own polling makes clear, fairness has strong public support. So fairness could be a useful framework for prodding civil servants to engage more with public priorities.

Civil servants could reasonably be asked to make sure that policies would deliver improvements (or at least not make things worse) on each of the five fair necessities (fair opportunities, reward, exchange, fundamentals and treatment), having first spent more time talking to real people to understand how their lives might be affected.


Not much will change in policy terms unless the politics changes. As Sam Freedman says, governments of all stripes have given into inexorable political logic by pandering to the perceived priorities of wealthy older homeowners, who vote more than other groups.

How to address this? Can we deploy a compelling set of moral and economic arguments to persuade this group that a fairer society is in their / their families’ / society’s interests, and that this means taking some short-term pain (taxing wealth, sorting out housing) in return for some long-term gain (fairer, better, more secure society)?

This sounds like an uphill battle. However, it may be a battle that is already partly won.

Research suggests that policy choices are driven more by ‘structural power’ than voter preferences. What this means in practice is that the most important thing to change is policymakers’ perceptions of the potential behavioural responses of powerful groups (such as our wealthy older homeowners), rather than the actual attitudes of those groups.

Maybe policymakers think that their target audience are more selfish and short-termist than they actually are? If we can frame the problems and the solutions in ways that attract support from these key demographics, and then communicate the level of that support back to policymakers, perhaps we can start to challenge the political consensus that acts as a constant brake on progress towards building a fairer society…

Fairness and organisations

How can organisations use fairness as a framework when designing internal policies and processes, projects, products and services?

Organisations in the public, private and voluntary sectors can use the five fair necessities (fair opportunities, reward, exchange, fundamentals and treatment) as a framework for designing (or re-designing) projects, external-facing products and services, and internal policies and processes.

Using fairness as a design principle has a range of benefits:

  • Ensuring that organisations with a social mission (including purpose-aligned businesses) achieve their objectives, by ensuring that their products or services are designed and delivered in ways that treat everyone fairly and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access them
  • Mitigating a range of strategic risks, including compliance, finance, people and reputational risks, by ensuring that processes and policies are designed and delivered fairly
  • Improving performance and efficiency by ensuring that processes and policies are designed and delivered fairly

There are many examples of good practice to draw from. For example:

The variety of ways in which fairness can be used as a design principle is too broad to summarise or even signpost from this website. However, if you are interested in finding out more about how your organisation could use the fair necessities as a framework, you can book a free call with us.