A nudge is as good as a regulation? Think again
The decision to part-privatise the so called “Nudge Unit”, otherwise known as the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Team, has been making headlines this week, but few of the articles have actually looked at what the unit does and whether it works.
The “Nudge” concept is important to anyone interested in policy-making because the Tories have moulded it in their own image and used it as an alternative to regulation. Basically they claim that you can change behaviour by nudging people into making the best choice and this is preferable to making laws.
Now a lot of so-called “nudging” is simply common sense, and hardly new. Much of the work of the unit has been more “blue-sky thinking” than behavioural change. In fact if you look at a list of what has come out of the unit it would probably best be placed under the heading “glaringly-obvious”. For instance if you write to people to tell them that if they don’t pay their road tax they will lose their car then people are more likely to pay (especially if you include a photo of their car). However some of the ideas have been a bit less sensible – such as giving fake personality tests to job-seekers.
The philosophy of “nudge rather than regulate” has had an impact well outside of the “Nudge Unit”, such as in the health and safety world where the government is ensuring that the HSE turn as many Approved Codes of Practice as possible into guidance. They have also argued against a number of proposed European regulations on the grounds that the same can be achieved through guidance. As a result the level of regulation is being constantly eroded by a government that seems incapable of understanding that part of its role is to protect the weak from the strong, and that health and safety is not about nudging employers (and workers) in the right direction, but instead is about setting legal minimums that no-one can fall below.
What we have now is a health and safety strategy faced on an untested ideology with workers as the guinea-pigs. Yet when it comes to making a difference there is no one correct answer. To change behaviour we need a mix of regulation, enforcement, guidance and support. It is not about philosophy and ideology – it is about what works.
So does “Nudging work”? In some cases they can possibly argue that the unit has made a difference, but would regulation have made a bigger difference? One of the unit’s proposals was to test government policies in “randomised trials”. (and backed by one of my heroes and scourge of the drugs industry Ben Goldacre). This sounds great until you think about it. Unfortunately, all this is likely to mean is that they will compare the outcomes of a “nudge” initiative with what is happening now while what you should be doing is comparing the likely effect of nudging with the likely effect of other alternatives such as a new law.. So it might be possible to test the effect of the HSE guidance on director’s duties with the period before there was any guidance on director’s duties and say – “Yes, the guidance has made a difference”, but that is not the test. The test should be which would make the most difference, guidance or a law imposing a duty on directors?
What evidence there is seems to imply that “Nudging” on its own is not the answer. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee looked at the impact of “Nudging” and found “precious little evidence” for any effective impact. As the chairs said “Behavioural change interventions appear to work best when they are part of a package of regulation and fiscal measures”
…and of course let’s not forget the other reason for the part-privatisation of the unit. It is to set the scene for their policy of privatising anything that moves. The PCS union said that a recent opinion poll suggested “only 16% of civil servants were even ‘interested in exploring the idea’ of becoming a mutual” so it is hardly surprising that they are trying it out with a tiny unit of handpicked academics and specialists like this.