Sunday, 27 July 2014

'Nudging' under further scrutiny: the failures and successes of the Behavioural Insights Team

Following on from the posting
Futures Forum: The 'sharing economy', 'resilience' and 'nudging': Evgeny Morozov on "The rise of data and the death of politics"

... there has been more discussion on the key idea current in Anglo-Saxon governments:
Behavioral economics - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Neuroeconomics - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Much of this stems from the catchy notion of 'nudge':
Nudge blog · Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
Nudge (book) - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Many would question its seeming contradictions:
Soft paternalism - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Richard Thaler on Libertarian Paternalism | EconTalk | Library of Economics and Liberty

Although it goes back some way:
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition: Robert B. Cialdini: 9780061241895: Amazon.com: Books
Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity: Amazon.co.uk: Raymond Tallis: BooksAping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis – review | Books | The Observer

The UK government has its own 'nudge unit':
Behavioural Insights Team - GOV.UK
BBC News - Government can alter public behaviour, top adviser says
BBC News - Exploiting neuroscience lessons to shape policy

This has recently been 'part privatised':
BBC News - Whitehall 'Nudge unit' to be part privatised
Anger at 'nudge unit privatisation' = Common purpose or Agenda 21. | UK Column

And today the Observer reported that the 'nudge unit' is under further scrutiny:

Lords challenge No 10 to prove value of public behaviour 'nudge' unit

Select committee calls for more evaluation from Behavioural Insights Team of its failures and successes

Jamie Doward The Observer, Saturday 26 July 2014 20.01 BST
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The Behavioural Insights Team has reputedly saved the government £300m by changing public behaviour, but questions remain about its value. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images

It is one of David Cameron's pet projects and has reputedly saved the government more than £300m since its creation.

No 10's "Nudge Unit" – or the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), as it is officially known – is charged with finding new ways to change public behaviour. Inspired by the bestselling 2008 book Nudge, written by US academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the team uses behavioural psychology to examine how people make choices and then suggests small changes that could improve their lives and save taxpayers' money.

The jargon it uses may sound like something from The Thick of It, but the team has been considered a success. Spun off earlier this year as a mutual joint venture co-owned by its employees, the Cabinet Office and the innovation charity Nesta, it has been credited with encouraging more than 100,000 people to carry organ donor cards.

But just how successful has the initiative really been? The House of Lordsscience and technology select committee has written to the Cabinet Office minister, Oliver Letwin, commending the unit's work and conceding the success of some of its interventions – notably on tax collection and organ donation – but expressing concern "that robust evaluation data is not always available in the public domain to substantiate such claims".

The committee's chairman, Tory peer Lord Selborne, questions in the letter whether the unit is being too selective in what it publishes. "We would emphasise the importance of publishing information on approaches which have not worked, as well as successes," Selborne says. He adds that the BIT "has not published an annual report since its 2011-12 update, and this did not contain sufficient data to enable independent assessment of the success of the BIT's work".

Selborne says his committee would like the team "to ensure that sufficient information is made available about successful and unsuccessful interventions to allow independent evaluation of methods and findings". He calls for "longitudinal evaluations of some interventions" because "the effectiveness of some approaches may diminish over time, and new approaches may be required to maintain desired outcomes".

The committee, which scrutinised BIT's performance in tackling obesity and people's reliance on cars – initiatives that Selborne would like to see evaluated further – also asks Letwin why certain "nudge" recommendations have gone unheeded.

"We were concerned to learn during the course of our follow-up inquiry that, although the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence unequivocally recommended a minimum price per unit of alcohol in its 2010 guidance, no action has been taken to implement this … we believe ministers have a responsibility to explain why."

The criticisms will be studied closely in government. Ministers have insisted policy must be effective and evidence-based. The government is rolling out a network of What Works Centres that will track policies and their outcomes. Amid growing scrutiny of policy, some question whether the BIT's approach is too subtle. "You need more than just a nudge," Baroness Julia Neuberger said after the Lords select committee inquiry found little evidence to suggest the team was effective on a large scale.

Owain Service, managing director of BIT, said he was pleased the committee had commended its work. He said the team had highlighted both ineffective and successful interventions, adding of Selborne's request for more information on the organ donation and tax trials: "We are forwarding Lord Selborne the published documents on these subjects, which include academic articles and data tables of the results. In line with the committee's recommendations, we're also going to continue publishing our findings."

Lords challenge No 10 to prove value of public behaviour 'nudge' unit | Society | The Observer

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