The nudge agenda has come of age.
Back in 2010 most people in public life did not know much about behavioural policies to improve public policy outcomes, even if they had heard about nudge from Thaler and Sunstein’s book of the same name. Thanks to the work of the Behavoural Insights Team (often called the ‘nudge unit’), which was set up in the Cabinet Office by incoming Conservative-Liberal coalition government in 2010, most policy makers now know that behavioural insights can be used to redesign the instruments of public policy, such as personalising text messages to collect court fines, nudges to get city workers to donate to charity, motivating talks to encourage young people to apply to university, and using norms to improve payment to HMRC.
So behavioural insights work, and the Behavioural Insights Team has given a presentation on its findings in Wales in 2015. So what is next on the behavioural agenda, where can it work best and is it relevant in Wales? This is where a more decentralised approach to nudge policies is the way forward and where the Welsh government and local authorities and other public bodies in Wales are well placed to take advantage.
We argued in Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think that behavioural policies are wrongly thought to be top down and technocratic; instead they work best when implemented away from the centre of government in partnership with the delivery agencies that have a direct contact with the citizen where policies can be fashioned to suit local circumstances. It is important to find out whether nudges that work in one jurisdiction apply elsewhere rather than assume there is one solution fits all parts of the UK. This is the replication agenda. The Welsh government with its wide range of responsibilities for public services is well placed to customise behavioural insights to respond to Welsh priorities and to work with local stakeholders to design and test out nudges that have worked in other places. Waste recycling and the need to improve council tax collection are two areas where nudges may work in Wales but where we don’t know by how much because Wales residents may respond differently to those in the rest of the UK (how would nudges work in Welsh, for example?).
There are a number of other acute problems in Wales where behavioural solutions may be useful. Behavioural change and health improvement is a big issue with the highest childhood obesity rates in the UK and half a million smokers and higher than average type 2 diabetes. So there is a great potential to extend the nudge agenda to help with pressing policy problems in Wales today. To do this we need randomised controlled trials to test out interventions and to compare results with what we know from elsewhere.
About the author: Peter John is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy in the School of Public Policy, University College London. He is known for his books on public policy: Analysing Public Policy (2nd edition 2012) and Making Policy Work (2011). He is the author, with Keith Dowding, of Exits, Voices and Social Investment: Citizens’ Reaction to Public Services (2012) and, with Anthony Bertelli (NYU), of Public Policy Investment (2013). He uses experiments to study civic participation in public policy, with the aim of finding out what governments and other public agencies can do to encourage citizens to carry out acts of collective benefit. This work appeared in Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think: Using Experiments to Change Civic Behaviour, which was published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2011. He is an academic advisor to the Behavioural Insights Team and is involved in a number projects that seek to test out behavioural insights with trials, such as the redesign of tax reminders and channel shift. He co-edits The Journal of Public Policy for CUP.