SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 7 – How nudges can improve the effectiveness of welfare policies

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

bonvinJean-Michel Bonvin, Emilio Paolo Visintin, Frédéric Varone, Fabrizio Butera, Max Lovey and Emilie Rosenstein

In our recent article in Policy & Politics, we analysed how nudges impact on the effectiveness of welfare policy implementation. The actions and decisions of street-level bureaucrats (SLBs), ie civil servants working directly with the general public, are crucial to the implementation of public policies. Consider for example the crucial role of social workers, teachers, nurses or police officers for our daily life. And of particular relevance to the current coronavirus pandemic: the dedicated engagement of SLBs in emergency units of hospitals, care homes for the elderly and delivering social benefits to unemployed people.

As regards welfare policies, SLBs play a crucial role when it comes to reducing beneficiaries’ vulnerability or increasing their resilience. Their tasks are often burdensome and they have to handle large amounts of information in short time frames. Despite engagement and efforts by SLBs to be as effective as possible in their work, mistakes happen.

The idea behind our study is that some expeditious and unobtrusive small changes in the work environment might be enough to improve SLBs’ efficacy. Therefore, we created a nudge, i.e. a small change in the environment which was likely to influence SLBs’ behaviour. Specifically, we created a thought-provoking nudge, i.e. a nudge designed to invoke the broader context of the beneficiary’s life course, and thus more appropriate ways to process information about beneficiaries.

We reasoned that among SLBs a focus on personal characteristics, life history and vulnerabilities of policy beneficiaries could increase empathy toward beneficiaries and a personal, humanized view of beneficiaries, which in turn might increase effective decisions by SLBs.

With this aim, we conducted an experiment with SLBs from two disability insurance offices in Switzerland. The experiment reproduced the daily work routine as accurately as possible. SLBs were randomly assigned to the experimental condition, where a quick exercise led them to think about the life course and vulnerabilities of beneficiaries before making decisions, or to the control, business-as-usual condition. SLBs were next invited to examine three real anonymized past cases (i.e. real files of people who applied for disability benefits in the past years), and to make decisions about whether or not to grant them with a rehabilitation program. SLBs also answered questions investigating their empathy toward and humanization of beneficiaries.

We found that a one minute nudge was too weak or too short to directly improve the effectiveness of the SLBs’ decisions. However, the nudge increased SLBs’ humanization of beneficiaries, which in turn increased the effectiveness of their decisions.

While our findings do not support the usefulness of such a nudge to immediately improve SLBs’ effectiveness, they suggest that longer trainings on life course and vulnerability, including humanization of beneficiaries, might be helpful to boost SLBs’ effective decisions.

Beyond these substantial conclusions, our study significantly contributes to the development of innovative methodologies to empirically investigate SLBs’ margin for agency. Further studies should capitalize on these innovative findings to improve SLBs decisions and, thus, the delivery of welfare policies. This challenge is particularly poignant given the current context of the coronavirus pandemic.

You can read the original research in Policy & Politics:

Visintin, Emilio Paolo; Bonvin, Jean-Michel ; Varone, Frédéric; Butera, Fabrizio; Lovey, Max; Rosenstein, Emilie (2020) ‘Can street-level bureaucrats be nudged to increase effectiveness in welfare policy?‘,  Policy & Politics, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1332/030557320X15955051687823  [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

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: Blog 6 – The maturing of Behavioural Public Policy: A constructive proposal

If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

Introduction to the upcoming special issue: Beyond nudge: advancing the state-of-the-art of behavioural public policy and administration [Free]

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