This quarter’s collection highlights three of our most popular and highly cited articles in 2021 which, based on their readership and citation levels, have clearly made an important contribution to their fields.
Special issue blog series on advancing our understanding of the politics behind nudge and the ‘behavioural insights’ trend in public policy.
Benjamin Ewert and Kathrin Loer
There is a controversial debate going on about using public policy to influence people’s behaviour. The discussion becomes particularly heated when behavioural public policy is accused of being manipulative or opaque. Scholarly thinking on Behavioural Public Policy (BPP) as a relatively new policy concept that has been established in recent years is not neutral but influenced by heuristics and biases. BPP is often equated with “nudge”, a notion that goes back to Thaler’s and Sunstein’s definition of the concept in 2008. Moreover, BPP has not integrated with a range of behavioural sciences but instead has been associated with rather restricted insights from behavioural economics and psychology, by behavioural scientists such as Kahneman, Tversky and Thaler. Indeed the fact that BPP suffers from inherent biases is somewhat ironic since the concept’s main claim is precisely to disclose the heuristics and biases that influence human behaviour and to counteract them by behaviourally informed policy designs. That’s the theory. However, in practice, BPP is pretty much determined by “nudge theory”, a fact that, on the one hand, has contributed to the rapid popularisation of the policy concept but, on the other hand, has constantly fuelled criticisms predominantly about its lack of understanding of how people’s behaviour is influenced by social contexts (e.g. families, communities and place of employment) and triggered by situational effects (e.g. peer-group pressure). Continue reading SPECIAL ISSUE BLOG SERIES: Blog 6 – The maturing of Behavioural Public Policy: A constructive proposal→
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. Continue reading Behavioural insights teams in practice: nudge missions and methods on trial→
At the recent cross-government Behavioural Insights (BI) network conference, delegates were introduced to the idea of theories of practice as a way of framing policy making for behaviour change. BI network members design and test policies using principles from behavioural economics, which is as far removed from the sociological routes of ‘practice’ as it is possible to be. However, the limits of behavioural economics for achieving meaningful behaviour change are well documented. For example, critics have highlighted its narrow scope and low ambition in the face of intractable problems such as climate change and obesity.
Theories of practice underpin the work of an increasingly large number of academics who aim for systemic, cultural change, not just better choices. Some government social researchers (GSRs) are aware of the ‘practice’ approach, although the lack of evidence base has so far stunted its adoption. However, most GSRs are unfamiliar with its potential.