From the Guardian
"Nudge is on the global agenda. It has been four months since the UK's behavioural insights team, or nudge unit, was part-privatised; the team has helped set up its overseas counterparts in the US and Australia, and now nudge units from around the world are attending the first international behavioural insights conference on 2 and 3 June 2014 in Sydney.
For Michael Sanders, head of research for the UK team, it's an exciting time to be a research economist. "This is the dead centre of the middle of the universe," he says. "We have an opportunity to change the world for the better and I think we might actually get to do that."
The team uses insights from behavioural psychology to identify reasons why people make bad choices – from smoking to filling in a tax form too late – and then tests small changes in the way choices are presented to "nudge" them into making better decisions. This is usually done using randomised controlled trials.
Among its early successes, the unit claims to have brought forward the payment of £30m a year in income tax (by introducing new reminder letters that informed recipients that most of their neighbours had already paid) and recruited 100,000 more people each year to carry organ donor cards (by discovering that the most effective slogan to present to people renewing their tax disc online was one that appealed to them personally - "If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one?").
It was established as the world's first behavioural insights unit in July 2010 and spun out of the Cabinet Office in early February in order to respond with greater flexibility to the growing demand for "nudge" services. It's now a for-profit social purpose company, jointly owned by its employees, the government and Nesta.
The team now sells its services – mostly to central government departments and local authorities – but has expanded to take on a wider variety and greater number of projects, including for foreign governments, the World Bank and UNDP.
Sanders admits, as an academic, sales skills are not his strong point but says, as a former civil servant, he had already honed his people skills and that the unit isn't suffering from missing skills. "We haven't had to put on the hard sell and go knocking on the doors of foreign governments," he says. "The focus is on delivering work at as high a standard as possible and letting that sell itself."
The management team, which includes Sanders and chief executive David Halpern, meets once a week to decide which projects to take on – usually those that advance social good and do not put the team's reputation at risk. Among other projects the team is currently running a research centre focused on improving adult literacy and numeracy, commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Not everyone is impressed. Although many civil servants are excited by tools that enable them to do their jobs better, some cynics within government are probably "used to fads coming along", Sanders says. "Maybe there's an attitude that if you sit down and carry on with things these annoying guys will go away. However, if we show them the intervention we worked on with HMRC, and confront them with a bar chart that says this brought forward the payment of £200m worth of tax and it was free, they are very convinced by that.
"We can't just rest on our laurels; we need to get out there and show people the amazing evidence that's being produced."
As a part-privatised company, the nudge unit is no longer subject to freedom of information (FOI) requests, a move criticised by sceptics already suspicious of the practice of "implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public".
This is a very negative view, says Sanders, quick to point out that any correspondence with Whitehall can be subject to FOI. The team will also be audited by the National Audit Office.
Applying behavioural insights to public policy does not impinge on people's choices, Sanders adds. "The people we're dealing with aren't typically amoral libertarians who are not paying their taxes in order to stick it to the man. They've forgotten to fill in their tax return.
"Everybody wants to have filled in their tax return but nobody wants to fill in their tax return. It's about trying to get those two to gel together.
"It's also about getting government out of the way. If you get a letter through the post and it doesn't tell you what to do you're going to ignore it. Even if it's from HMRC who are big and scary." Many government documents are overly complex and unclear, he says.
The nudge unit has been at the forefront of Whitehall's evidence agenda, pushing the debates around evidence-based policymaking and using randomised controlled tests to assess the quality of policy interventions. Halpern also heads up the What Works network of research centres, which gather evidence to inform government policy in health, education, crime reduction, early intervention, ageing and local economic growth.
The team has played a major role in pushing this agenda on the international stage; Rory Gallagher, director of international partnerships, advises the governments of New South Wales (Australia) and Singapore. The 2014 behavioural exchange conference is a chance to form links between experts, share experiences and avoid duplication of effort.
Sanders joined the team more than two years ago as a part-time research fellow (working rather more often than that, he adds) funded by the The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of his PhD, which found that people were more likely to donate to charity if given a small packet of sweets. He says he's seen a huge change in the culture of government, even during his short stint as a civil servant.
He commutes from Oxford every day, leaving home around 5.30am and returning as late as 9pm, and pursues an academic career at weekends. "Why wouldn't you work this hard? We have the chance to run cool research and try as hard as we possibly can to make the world a better place. The fact that I'm allowed to do this as a living is a small miracle.
"I really don't want my tombstone to read: managed to get people to give to charity by giving them sweets. It's about saving the world, one randomised controlled test at a time."