SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 5 – In times of pandemic crisis and beyond: Moving to an advanced understanding of Behavioural Public Policy and Administration

Special issue blog series on advancing our understanding of the politics behind nudge and the ‘behavioural insights’ trend in public policy.

Benjamin Ewert,  Kathrin Loer and Eva Thomann

Our introductory article with Eva Thomann to the new special issue of Policy & Politics aims to advance our current understanding of Behavioural Public Policy and Administration (BPP/BPA) by moving beyond “nudge”, the iconic but contested synonym for any policies that have been inspired by insights from the behavioural sciences so far. Based on a broad conceptual design and methodological pluralism, we suggest that behavioural policymaking must develop a more nuanced understanding of the interrelations between social structures and individual action in order to effectively tackle more complex policy problems.

Evidence to support our arguments is plentiful, but the example of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that “nudge” interventions are not a panacea. At first glance, there are good reasons to believe that the pandemic has significantly challenged behavioural policies. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, people across the globe are repeatedly reminded that to effectively contain the virus requires behavioural adaptions such as physical distancing, hygiene measures (e.g. hand washing) and wearing a mask. However, in contrast to “nudge theory” that puts a strong emphasis on the non-coercive character of its suggested interventions, most of the behavioural tools currently being used to fight COVID-19 are strictly mandatory. For example, in many countries (e.g. Germany) people are not gently nudged but forced by law to wear a mask on public transport. Likewise, at the peak of the crisis, physical distancing was ordered rather than recommended by lawmakers. This is to say nothing of the massive lockdown respective measures were accompanied with. Thus, while most anti-COVID policies have behavioural implications and are evidenced by behavioural research, implementing them appears to require command-and-control instruments rather than nudge approaches. This is not least because there is also a heterogeneous attitude within the population as to which behaviour is considered appropriate.

Furthermore, in the UK – a country that has been a forerunner of behavioural insights – the pandemic was abruptly thwarting the track record of behavioural policymakers. For example, David Halpern, the former leader of UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), was accused of being co-responsible for ‘flawed policies over the coronavirus outbreak’. Halpern advised the British government in early March to pursue a relatively soft approach to allow sufficient herd immunity – a concept that, to be fair, does not emanate from behavioural sciences. Although Halpern revised his advice immediately as the public health crisis worsened, commentators concluded that ‘Nudge theory is a poor substitute for hard science in matters of life or death’. Hence, in the light of the pandemic, behavioural policies were deemed as a light-weight and rather irresponsible policy response. The take-away message to be drawn from the UK policy debate could be universalised: ‘Nudges against the pandemic’, as painfully demonstrated by Sweden’s misguided COVID-19 containment strategy, lead to poor policy performance.

Thus, the pandemic has once again revealed two challenges to behavioural policymaking. First, behavioural interventions must be enhanced with other policy instruments in order to be effective. Second, nudging individual behaviour seems inadequate if policy problems are particularly serious. More generally, they require a minimum level of accepting the existence of the problem and the basic measures to deal with it. The introduction to our special issue refers to this standard critique by situating behavioural approaches in an overarching behavioural model of the policy process that embeds individual behaviour into meso and macro level contexts. Crucially, this model acknowledges that individual behaviour and attitudes are influenced not only by individual psychological factors but that they are also embedded in social and political contexts.

Related to COVID-19, we can observe cyclical and interactive effects: the pandemic suddenly changed the conditions at the macro and meso level. This affected individual conditions for action at the micro-level that, in aggregate, produced new social outcomes at the macro-level—which in turn creates new social facts:  a “new normality” emerged based on norms and rules for living together which differ significantly from routines that have shaped everyday life so far. Following this argument, behavioural research could have been used at the meso-level to produce concrete practical insights for the management and performance of decision-making in public health agencies. These insights could have helped us to understand better the success or failure of network collaboration. Linking to the macro level and with a more normative view, behavioural perspectives should have weighed social costs against social benefits when designing behavioural tools to fight the virus. Behavioural insights may also have helped policymakers to understand the conditions under which public policy is perceived as representative and legitimate by citizens. Furthermore, a broad conception of behavioural policymaking could contribute to a deeper understanding of how different societal contexts influence corona policies differently and what this means for designing policies.

In conclusion, our behavioural model helps to understand the varieties of influences and interactions on behaviourally informed policies and paves the way for integrating them into policy mixes that include conventional instruments in order to also address structural aspects of policy problems. In this way, behavioural insights may yield an intelligent and adaptive policy design that is better equipped to respond to severe policy challenges.

The eight articles of our special issue, to be introduced via this blog over the coming weeks, all contribute different perspectives to help advance our understanding of behavioural policymaking in theory and practice. It is our hope that through this work, we can make a positive impact on both scholarly thinking and the practice of utilising behavioural insights for public policy and administration. By shifting the focus away from nudge policies, our special issue contributes to exploiting the full potential of Behavioural Public Policy and Administration throughout the policy process.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Ewert, Benjamin; Loer, Kathrin; Thomann, Eva (2020) ‘Beyond nudge: advancing the state-of-the-art of behavioural public policy and administration‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15987279194319 [Free]

Read the other blog pieces in the series: 

FORTHCOMING SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 1 – Why Nudge Sometimes Fails: Fatalism and the Problem of Behaviour Change

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 2 – Behavioural insights into what motivates public employees on the front line to respond to reforms championed by elected politicians

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 3 – Behavioural insights teams in practice: nudge missions and methods on trial

SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 4 – Three top tips for better quality behavioural public policy research

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