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June 13, 2012

A nudge or a push – behaviour change is tricky

Sitting on the lofty perches of the highest branches of government, a constant conundrum for policy makers must be how best to achieve the sort of policy outcomes that require sustained behaviour change on the part of citizens.  Is legislation the answer? It worked with seatbelts and to some extent with smoking but compulsory compliance for everything soon becomes impractical.   Or should government just set down guidelines and trust us to do what’s right?


Extract from Nudging Citizens Towards Localism?

By Peter John, Liz Richardson

Times are tough for public policy-makers. Government faces many pressures. Public health outcomes are unsatisfactory. Improved parenting could make a real difference to children’s opportunities in life. Many communities suffer from a weak sense of cohesion. Care and support services for the growing numbers of older people are unsatisfactory. On the other hand, improving services to meet these objectives would cost money, which is in short supply.

In this context, behavioural change policies look increasingly attractive. If we can use the resources of social psychology and related disciplines to influence people’s choices, the way may be open to securing real improvements without expensive interventions. ‘Nudge’ – i.e. achieving behavioural change by persuasion from government and other bodies – is a popular theme in policy debates. 

In this report, Professor Peter John from UCL, with help from Liz Richardson from Manchester University, has examined the effectiveness of the nudge approach, informed by interviews with policy-makers in a range of central government departments and local agencies, and parliamentary reports. The conclusions emphasise that, despite the enthusiasm and the frequent references to behavioural change in the official literature, there is insufficient knowledge about what works and what doesn’t in practical contexts. The implementation of nudge policies to promote positive choices across a broad range of areas from smoking and diet to sorting rubbish, from good neighbouring to cutting down car use is patchy.

The report focuses on the use of nudge to encourage citizens to take more responsibility for meeting local needs themselves. It provides an independent view of the evidence and comments on the current government’s interest in localism and decentralisation. It points out that the best way to pursue nudge policies is exactly the kind of issue that lends itself to local experimentation and to properly randomised trials. There are real opportunities to improve understanding of the kinds of behavioural changes that would help us achieve policy objectives at relatively low cost by systematically investigating the outcomes of local initiatives.

This report commends the work of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team. It argues that we need more experimentation and more randomised controlled trials so that behavioural change policies can be properly assessed and can be converted from a fashionable idea to a practicable way of achieving policy objectives.

Executive Summary

Do policies designed to create desired behaviour changes on the part of citizens need concerted action by central government to ensure their effective delivery? Or is there a need for a more decentralised approach whereby the centre sets the guidelines, but other agencies, the voluntary sector and citizens decide policies and implement the changes needed? This report reviews the arguments for and against these different approaches to implementing policies that promote behaviour change, paying particular attention to the possible tension between national policy objectives and theapproach of decentralisation and the ‘Big Society’. Greater decentralisation

of power could inhibit the government from achieving its objectives, but on the other hand decentralisation could encourage a more legitimate and selfsustaining form of behaviour change. Therefore a key question addressed here is: has the government arrived at an uneasy compromise of not acting enough to push policies through but not fostering sufficient decentralisation to energise localities?

This report comes to the following conclusions:

 1. The claim that behaviour change could be implemented by strong central action as implied by the findings of the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee I report, Behaviour Change (2011), still needs much more evidence to support it. There is relatively little robust knowledge about the extent to which citizens will change their behaviour as a result of greater central direction and effort. Governments need to know more about the workings of the policy instruments at their disposal to achieve desired behaviour changes.

2. The House of Lords report claims that there has been a patchy response to the behaviour change agenda across Whitehall. This report supports this view, but also finds that there are examples of good practice and the collection of robust evidence through randomised controlled trials, which have been promoted by the successful work of Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team. This report for the British Academy recommends extending the work of the Team beyond its current two-year term.

3. The level of expertise and use of behaviour change interventions in local government and the voluntary sector are also patchy and confined to a few innovator authorities and organisations. Local government is often held back by too much focus on strategies and not enough attention to action and delivery. The report recommends

nudging local policy-makers so they become more innovative in their approach to behaviour change policies.

4. The decentralisation reforms introduced by the Localism Act and measures to promote the ‘Big Society’ also rely on behaviour changes for their effective implementation. These causal linkages have not as yet been fully taken into account by central government in its provisions for the implementation of the legislation. This report

recommends that more research should be undertaken on the best means to encourage more engagement of citizens.

5. Policy-makers need to pay more attention to the exact relationship between central direction, local autonomy and citizen input to decision making. Such attention would lead to a self-sustained improvement in policy outcomes, which would then be regarded as legitimate by the citizens who have a say in how these policies

emerge. The report recommends more interventions that, as well as nudging citizens, encourage them to ‘think’.

6. It is not clear at the present time what the impact is of other changes to central tools of implementation, in particular the abolition of Central Office for Information (COI). The report recommends an evaluation of the abolition of COI.

7. The implication of this report’s findings is that – in the short-run at least – it is likely there will only be moderate changes in citizen behaviour, both from central direction and from decentralised methods of delivering services and collective goods. The chief reason for this is the lack of knowledge about the exact relationship between government actions, citizen behaviours and effective public outcomes.

8. To remedy the gap in evidence, the report makes the case for more experiments, in particular randomised controlled trials, to find the best means to encourage behaviour change and citizen participation in public decisions. Such research would encourage a virtuous circle of better-guided central government policies (in order to provide the general regulatory framework), greater decentralisation to local agencies and community groups, and more effective mechanisms that stimulate the desired behaviour changes.