Public values and plurality in health priority setting: what to do when people disagree and why we should care about reasons as well as choices

Rachel Baker*, Helen Mason, Neil McHugh, Cam Donaldson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)
203 Downloads (Pure)


‘What does ‘The Public’ think?’ is a question often posed by researchers and policy makers, and public values are regularly invoked to justify policy decisions. Over time there has been a participatory turn in the social and health sciences, including health technology assessment and priority setting in health, towards citizen participation such that public policies reflect public values. It is one thing to agree that public values are important, however, and another to agree on how public values should be elicited, deliberated upon and integrated into decision-making. Surveys of public values rarely deliver unanimity, and preference heterogeneity, or plurality, is to be expected.

This paper examines the role of public values in health policy and how to elicit, analyse, and present values, in the face of plurality. We delineate the strengths and weaknesses of aggregative and deliberative methods before setting out a new empirical framework, drawing on Sunstein's Incompletely Theorised Agreements, based on three levels: principles, policies and patients. The framework is illustrated using a recognised policy dilemma – the provision of high cost, limited-effect medicines intended to extend life for people with terminal illnesses.

Application of the multi-level framework to public values permits transparent consideration of plurality, including analysis of coherence and consensus, in a way that offers routes to policy recommendations that are based on public values and justified in those terms.

Using the new framework and eliciting quantitative and qualitative data across levels of abstraction has the potential to inform policy recommendations grounded in public values, where values are plural. This is not to suggest that one solution will magically emerge, but rather that choices between policies can be explicitly justified in relation to the properties of public values, and a much clearer understanding of (in)consistencies and areas of consensus.

Original languageEnglish
Article number113892
Number of pages9
JournalSocial Science and Medicine
Early online date2 Apr 2021
Publication statusPublished - May 2021


  • Public deliberation
  • Health economics
  • Q methodology
  • Preference elicitation
  • Public values
  • Plurality
  • Incompletely theorized agreements
  • Empirical ethics
  • Priority setting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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