Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Citizen participation in large-scale behavioural change initiatives

This is one of a series of "living posts" that will updated periodically. See more examples on the right-hand side-bar of the blog.

The extent to which citizen participation might improve trust and legitimacy in behavioural change initiatives is an interesting question that has been discussed in a number of recent works and seminars. The role of citizen assemblies has been debated in a number of jurisdictions, not least Ireland where they have had an important role in a number of important issues, including as a precursor to our recent abortion referendum. I participated in a 2017 citizen assembly in Ireland, debating options for our pension system and found the experience a very striking one. This post will collect some useful links to papers and talks that have relevance to the potential use of citizen engagement formats in the development and deployment of large-scale behavioural change initiatives. I would like to continue to speak to colleagues and students about this emerging interdisciplinary area.

A recent book "How Far to Nudge" by Professor Peter John at UCL, in particular outlines how citizen involvement might improve behavioural public policy and is a very useful reference (link here and details below).
Behavioural public policies, or nudges, have become increasingly popular in recent years, with governments keen to use light-touch interventions to improve the success of their public policies. In this unique book, Peter John explores nudges, their successes and limitations, and sets out a bold manifesto for the future of behavioural public policy.
This book traces the beginnings of nudge in behavioural economics and tracks the adoption of its core ideas by policy-makers, providing examples of successful applications. By considering the question ‘how far to nudge?’, John reviews why it is crucial for governments to address citizen behaviours, and reviews the criticisms of nudge and its ethical limitations. Looking to its future, this book proposes the adoption of a radical version of nudge, nudge plus, involving increased feedback and more engagement with citizens.
How Far to Nudge? will be a vital text for students of behavioural public policy and policy analysis, as well as for anyone looking for an introduction to nudge policy and an explanation for its growth in popularity.
A recent oped by Peter John and Gerry Stoker further develops this point in the context of covid. 
While the role of behavioural science in the UK’s handling of the pandemic has been criticised, Peter John and Gerry Stoker argue that it is important for governments to try and influence citizens’ behaviour rather than rely on laws that are harder to enforce. They nevertheless explain why a different ‘nudging’ approach ought to have been used in this case. 
Their conclusion is a useful summary of the overall idea.
Behavioural science has got a lot of stick in recent months, especially in the early phase of the crisis. But this should not decry the importance of governments trying to influence citizens’ behaviour rather than relying on laws and commands that are hard to enforce. Governments and citizens need to work in partnership with each other as we go through this difficult phase of trying to cope with the virus long-term and where policies to prevent widespread infection are hard to explain. Telling people what not to do is easier than advising them about what to do in the right way and in the right circumstances. If we did not need the subtle practices of nudge-plus behaviour change before, we certainly do now.
As part of our Geary Institute public policy response to covid series of workshops, we hosted a session with Margaret Heffernan, David Farrell, and Jane Suiter on the potential role of citizen participation in developing covid policies. That particular series also examined behavioural responses and the role of expert input into developing responses to systemic risks such as pandemics. As mentioned in a previous post, many of the people involved in these sessions are also part of the H2020 PERITIA project led by Professor Maria Baghramian that is looking to develop trust and trustworthiness in policy advice structures, particularly in the domain of climate change. Some contributions from the team on covid are available here. A number of talks in the inaugural symposium of the project, in particular the talk by Professor David Farrell point to the potential role for citizen assemblies. 

A recent post by Dr Jessica Pykett - Senior lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Birmingham also develops the idea that citizen participation might be important in ensuring ethical deployment of nudge-type public policies and behavioural change initiatives more generally in public policy. In a previous post, we have collected a large series of readings on ethical issues in large-scale behavioural change initiatives and the potential for work on citizen engagement to address some of these issues is a very interesting topic. I have added this post to the "living posts" series on the sidebar of the blog and will update periodically with other readings and seminars. Suggestions welcome.

Some selected readings:

OECD Innovative Citizen Participation Project
‘Systematizing’ constitutional deliberation: the 2016–18 citizens’ assembly in Ireland
Final report of Irish "We the citizens" initiative

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