Thursday, January 14, 2016

Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference

I read David Halpern's Inside the Nudge Unit recently. The book tells the story of the development of the Behavioural Insights Team. Following a foreword by Richard Thaler, the book is divided into four sections outlined below:

Section 1 "A short history of nudging" outlines historical examples of the use of soft method of persuasion and the development of 20th century psychology. He describes how the work of Tversky and Kahneman came to be influential in Economics and ultimately in UK economic policy. There is a great deal of interesting anecdotal information on the key figures in the UK policy environment who became interested in this work and he speaks about prior attempts by him and colleagues to embed psychological insights into UK policy. He provides further detail on the role of figures such as Robert Cialdini and Richard Thaler in providing an intellectual and academic energy to the this effort. Chapter 2 details how the book Nudge came to be influential in the discussion and the development of the Institute for Government MINDSPACE report and the subsequent development of the Nudge Unit. In general the section provides a very useful overview of the intellectual influences and practical constraints that lead to the development of the unit.

Section 2 "Changing the world a nudge at a time" outlines various policy approaches emanating from the BIT using their EAST framework. Most of the material will be familiar to readers of this blog though it is interesting to see the examples embedded in the broader narrative of the development of the unit. Section 3 "Behavioural Insights as a Policy Tool" develops wider ideas on the role of behavioural insights in policy. Chapter 7 deals directly with issues of ethics, privacy and transparency and contains several interesting insights into how these have been deal with through the development of their work. Halpern's ideas on how the nudge literature might combine with the well-being literature are developed in Chapter 9 and Chapters 8 and 10 develop a set of ideas on "radical incrementalism" or how big policy challenges might be broken down into smaller challenges that can be addressed through constant experimentation and iteration. Halpern is quite reflective in these chapters about the potential limitations of Nudge and moves towards the idea that the role of groups like the Behavioural Insights Team is not so much to develop Nudges but rather to use behavioural insights to improve a broad range of policies and discusses cases, such as climate change, where Nudges alone may be ineffective in generating widespread behavioural change. This is a discussion that would be great to develop further in many directions and his insights on this issue are well worth reading.

Section 4 outlines risks/limitations and potential future directions. He again deals with issues of ethics and transparency as well as the potential that the public will become immune to behavioural techniques. It is good that Cass Sunstein will be releasing a book shortly on the ethical issues of government use of behavioural science. I have kept a long reading list on this issue here. Halpern deals with several of the potential objections of the form that nudging is a "dark art" and, in my view, is broadly convincing that what the BIT has been doing is ethical and transparent. Though clearly as these applications develop further this discussion needs to develop with them. He also deals with the, now widely discussed, issue that many of the uses of behavioural science may be to dupe people into making bad decisions for the benefit of others. His thoughts on the role of behavioural science in regulating such practices are also worth reading.

The BIT has been one of the world's most interesting policy experiments in the last decade. This book provides a useful summary of the intellectual influences and practical constraints that led to its development. It will be useful for students and practitioners in this area and I hope it is read by senior policy-makers in different countries looking for inspiration on how to encourage policy innovation in their countries. It is probably best not to think of it as a DIY guide to making a Nudge Unit. As a former Oxford don who was widely known by senior public policy makers for over a decade, Halpern was unusually well positioned to develop something like this and it is also clear that, notwithstanding resistance at various stages, the development benefited from a perfect storm of political and civil service good-will, favourable intellectual torrents and particularly driven individuals. But it does provide an inspiring case study of ideas crossing over the threshold into real public policy making and the book does an excellent job in conveying how this happened.

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