Sarah Ball and Brian W. Head
They go by a variety of names; nudge units, behavioural insights (BI) teams and behavioural economics teams. However, they all owe a debt to the pioneering work of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the United Kingdom (UK). Based on behavioural research on the ‘irrational’ behaviours of citizens and/or policy target audiences, ‘nudge’ instruments have been tested through rigorous research in the form of randomised controlled trials. Using this approach, the BIT UK has had a significant impact on the policy innovation landscape across the globe. Teams have emerged in Europe, the US, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Peru, Australia, New Zealand and many more countries.
Our research recently published in Policy & Politics explores the BI phenomena as it emerged in Australia, from which we derive analysis relevant to global actors and governments engaged BI. In two independent exploratory studies, we sought to understand how such teams actually operate in practice. One study was an in-depth observational study of staff in the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA). The other was an interview-based study of three teams, namely, those operating in two state governments, New South Wales and Victoria, together with the Australian government’s BETA.
Our findings highlighted that the scientific persuasiveness of evidence drawn from RCTs played a significant role in the promotion of the behavioural approach in government. This sometimes led to the exclusion of other methods and to the exclusion of policy issues not amenable to behavioural trials. This scientific focus permeated many of the work practices across all three teams. Staffing and training of the teams focused on the attainment of technical expertise in designing and delivering trials. Their methodology shaped how they selected projects and how the projects were designed. In most cases the teams recognised the need for more qualitative or exploratory methods for gathering contextual information, but these activities could easily be disrupted by time pressures and by the focus on delivering a trial. The teams acknowledged that RCTs were not a universal solution to all research questions and policy puzzles. However, for many who were interviewed for our research, there was a determined focus on particular methods, known in one team as an ‘RCT or the highway’ approach.
This focus on RCTs helped nudge units gain credibility and legitimacy in policy making circles. But our research also demonstrates that there was a growing awareness that the RCT focus might constrain the development and delivery of useful projects. First of all, team members generally understood the importance of the political environment of policy making and understood that their commitment to RCTs might limit them to studying less complex or contested issues. Second, there was a significant risk of appearing technocratic or unethical in the eyes of partners or stakeholders. The use of more technical language, requiring analytical expertise, can lead to a decrease in transparency for the public, and even within government itself. Some of the language about the superiority of ‘gold-standard’ RCTs tended to sideline professional and stakeholder knowledge from policy analysis, equating ‘experience’ with anecdotal or intuitive evidence. However, support and engagement of citizens, professionals and stakeholders is often critical in building support for policy interventions.
Our research accepts that RCT research methods can provide useful opportunities for learning about ‘what works’. But our research shows that while individual members of BI teams may privately acknowledge the limits to RCTs, the official narrative of scientific authority remains at the core of the value proposition for BI teams.
From our research, we noted two concerns that may inhibit the long-term impact of BI on government policymaking. First, it is important to acknowledge the limitations placed on the scope of research questions, both methodologically and politically, when projects are centred on conducting RCTs. A renewed focus on better linking the micro and macro levels of analysis could address some of these concerns (see the work of Ewert, Loer and Thomann in the forthcoming Policy & Politics special issue on this topic).
Second, reliance on RCT-based science downplays the political context of policymaking, as well as the widely recognised need to build civic trust by moving away from technocratic and opaque government processes. The scientific nature of RCTs is supposed to promote objectivity and ‘depoliticise’ the evaluation of policy options; however, this masks the political context of selecting research questions and instruments, and the use of RCTs has largely proceeded on the basis of excluding the voices of users and citizens.
The fast-moving pace of policy debate and competition among the champions of different models for policy development, suggest that BI teams may need to learn to work with broader conceptions of knowledge and experiential expertise if they wish to remain influential.
You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:
Ball, Sarah; Head, Brian W. (2020) ‘Behavioural insights teams in practice: nudge missions and methods on trial’, Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15840777045205
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