Stop trying to change the world…the point is to nudge it

The current government’s ‘nudge’ agenda – inspired by developments in economics and psychology which emphasises systems of behaviour as the root of human actions and decisions – has become associated with its public spending cuts. Nudges are seen as a far more cost-effective way to encourage individuals to alter behaviour which leads to sub-optimal outcomes for individuals and society, in contrast to interventions such as education, regulation and punitive measures.  Yet nudge probably has as much to do with the ‘big society’ agenda than fiscal policy, in that nudges are understood as a way for individuals to take more responsibility for their own welfare.

But there may be even more to nudge than this. The most significant public policy nudge to date – the auto-enrolment of low-to-medium earners into an occupational pension scheme – is actually an extremely expensive intervention for the public purse. It almost compels individuals to start saving into an occupational pension… and pensions saving attracts generous rates of tax relief. Employers have also had their knickers in a twist about this one, because the scheme lays down in law the minimum contributions that they must make into their workers’ pensions. All in the name of nudge.

Some nudges might not even look like nudges. The ‘smoking ban’, for instance, seems like the nanny state writ large. Yet smoking is only banned in enclosed, public places. It’s barely a ban at all. It is far more an attempt to engender cultural change, sending a message that smoking is frowned upon without really stopping anyone from doing it. The manipulation of social norms is a key nudge.

The nudge agenda, despite its apparent faddishness, should be seen to embody an interest in behavioural traits which has been growing for decades within public policy circles.  Individual (in)actions and (non)decisions result from systems of behaviour that may be deep-rooted and highly routinised rather than deliberate. This notion is as much a challenge to the right’s assumption of utility-maximising individuals as it is to the left’s overbearing, interventionist state, and indeed new forms of state intervention may be justified on the grounds of changing individual behaviour.

The nudge agenda does have its critics… too often these critics have taken their cue from a quick skim of Thaler and Sunstein’s book ‘Nudge’, which is a rather cynical attempt to cash in on the nudge fad, and which over-emphasises the gimmicky aspects of behavioural change interventions. Gimmicks do work – we are influenced by things like smell, font size, the order we see things in a canteen, etc. But the University of Sheffield’s Michael Kenny may be right to argue that

“The apparent waning of the disposition to commit to civic initiatives is one reason why some politicians have leaped with gusto upon the idea of ‘Nudge’ propounded by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein… and other behavioural economists. Their focus upon the expert manipulation of the environment in which individual choices are made, appeals both because of its apparently realistic tailoring to the culture of instrumentalism, and since it offers politicians technocratic means of evading the complexities and obduracy of public opinion. Interesting and potentially innovative as some of the initiatives it has promoted may be – for instance the new Personal Accounts system for pensions which will make ‘opting in’ the default position – ‘Nudge’ represents a tactical retreat, not a new pathway, from a civic perspective. The contradictory character of public perceptions needs to be engaged and challenged, not bypassed through clever policy design. ‘Nudge’ backs off from the task of re-animating a civic perspective in contemporary culture.”

However, David Halpern’s work is a better place to start. Halpern places the nudge agenda within a wider process of civic renewal – precisely the kind of agenda that Kenny argues is being abandoned via the nudge paradigm. Crucially, Halpern just so happens to be the Cabinet Office official responsible for nudges under both the previous and current governments.

Indeed, a leading thinker within Kenny’s own field of political identity and citizenship – the University of Southampton’s Gerry Stoker is currently investigating just how effective nudges could be nurturing positive civic action. Nudge is not a panacea, but then again, nothing ever is. But in the inevitably less-than-ideal real world, does it have a place in the policy-makers toolkit? Give nudge a chance, I say.

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