Nudging still holds power for government policymakers

By on 12/06/2024 | Updated on 12/06/2024
Photo by Andres Ayrton via Pexels

A recent Global Government Forum webinar explored the role nudging plays in helping governments achieve policy and delivery goals.

By harnessing behavioural insights from disciplines such as psychology and the social sciences, governments have successfully applied ‘nudges’ to a range of areas, from healthy eating to tax avoidance. This success has been significant enough that today, more than 200 governments and public sector institutions around the world have embraced the use of behavioural insights to develop policies.

However, the approach has faced some criticism and doesn’t always work as expected. Over time, governments have refined the way they use these methods to understand and influence public behaviour.

Applying behavioural insights to policy

Susan Calvert, managing director of the Behavioural Economic team of the Australian Government, explained that her team of psychologists, economists, social researchers and behavioural scientists operate right from the centre of government in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. They work in partnership with policy teams across the government.

“We work by getting involved early in the policy cycle, and so we help with understanding policy problems,” Calvert said.

“We apply a behavioural lens to help develop policy solutions, and then we rigorously test those policy interventions to find out what works.”

These interventions include various methods, such as literature reviews, data analysis, qualitative and quantitative research, survey experiments, randomised control trials, consultations, forums and impact evaluations.

In France, the Behavioural Insights unit within the Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation at the Department of Public Service and Transformation has a similar team accompanying major innovation projects.

Dr Mariam Chammat, a senior advisor at the unit, said her team works to empower public servants with new methodologies, though explained that the basic principles behind all behavioural insights remain consistent.

“The idea is that if you are trying to achieve outcomes and you’re trying to create solutions that depend on how people behave, then it’s really important to understand how people behave,” Chammat said.

Her team uses cognitive psychology, anthropology and economics methods, “combined with experimental methods and impact evaluation”, she explained.

Read more: When push comes to ‘nudge’: how governments can influence the behaviour of citizens

Her team’s work involves understanding problems of “non-uptake or non-compliance” with certain policies and programmes. Non-uptake occurs when government initiatives that should, in principle, appeal to certain demographics don’t have the desired effect.

She offered an example of a cultural programme that was put in place in France a couple of years ago: “It addressed young people from ages 16 to 19 who stand to benefit from access to cultural activities. However, around 20% still did not use this programme, even though it was beneficial to them.”

To understand the causes of non-uptake, Chammat said that randomised control trials and ex-ante evaluations are useful.

Randomised control trials (RCTs) are studies that use a specific method to reduce bias. Typically, they involve the assignment of several similar individuals to two or more groups to test an intervention. The experimental group undergoes the intervention being tested, while the comparison or ‘control group’ undergoes the dummy or ‘placebo’ intervention. This then allows for a comparison to test the effectiveness of the experimental intervention.

Why some nudge units are fighting to survive

Iván Fernando Budassi, formerly director of the Behavioural Sciences and Public Policies unit within the Secretariat for Development Planning and Federal Competitiveness in the Ministry of Economy in Argentina, referred to the webinar discussion as “group therapy”.

As he put it: “We are all involved in public administration. This is a good place for us to think about the blend of things we need in certain institutions, about which legal structures are better for our units if they are to survive.”

Budassi said he cared deeply about the survival of his practice in government. In Latin America, there are just three or four nudge units, most of which have been downsized, or in the case of countries such as Uruguay or Chile, “practically disarmed”, he added.

“The great thing about behavioural sciences…is this idea that there are not only carrots, sticks and information to set public policies, but other tools.”

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Such other tools include social biases, whereby a nudge unit tries to convince people to pay taxes by showing that a lot of fellow citizens do so regularly. This stands in contrast to the traditional ‘stick’ methods of tax collection, which Budassi playfully said can sometimes have the tone of governments “threatening to kidnap a citizen’s relatives in order to collect tax on time”.

“With this simple change in the structure of our communication with the public, we can have more interesting approaches. It’s a useful example of our tools,” he said.

Chatbots are increasingly common across public services worldwide, and this is true in nudge units too. Budassi said his team used chatbots with control groups during the COVID-19 vaccination drive, noting that chatbots are a primary tool for making it easier for citizens to interact with government.

“We multiplied by almost four times the vaccination rate in the province we used this tool, and now we are implementing this at the national level,” he said.

As well as vaccination uptake, nudges were used successfully to tackle online gambling during COVID, as well as in GP screening for domestic abuse and child nutrition. 

Gambling decisions

Calvert revealed that Australia has one of the highest gambling losses on a per capita basis in the world. When the country went into lockdown, a dramatic increase in the rate of online gambling followed.

“The government wanted to make sure our at-risk gamblers were making informed decisions about their betting,” she said. “So, what we did was to partner with some leading academics from three universities around Australia, and we used behavioural science to determine whether providing participants with information about their total online betting would actually reduce or influence their spending.”

Her team focused on the target group’s cognitive biases known to affect gambling decisions, and then ran a study to simulate gambling. They then tested whether providing different information to different control groups would influence how much they would gamble. The research provided information on their winnings and total losses, and in different formats through an RCT and to find out what worked.

“What we found was that activity statements helped consumers make decisions about their online gambling by reducing the amount that they bet, by an amount of 7.6% on average, and by even more for at-risk gamblers,” Calvert said.

It is now mandatory for online betting companies to provide monthly activity statements to their customers, and these statements are based on the design that proved the most successful in Calvert and her team’s trials.

Ethical nudging

The speakers debated whether behavioural insights could run the risk of accusations of ethical malpractice, such as manipulation of subjects.

“We are always acting in our citizens’ best interests,” Calvert said.

“One of the safeguards we have in place is to ensure that every single piece of our primary research is subject to an independent ethics review, and one of our universities currently holds the contract for doing that.”

Chammat said that in 2020/2021, the French government launched a collaborative project with the OECD to create an official ethical checklist for use by all practitioners of behavioural insights around the world when conducting research.

Read more: Policy delivery – the challenge that government can no longer ignore

The checklist urges practitioners to “have questions at all steps of the project”, she explained.

“These are not just questions of whether we should work on a project or not, but also the ethical concerns of asking certain questions. When you’re doing the randomised control trials, is someone receiving unfair treatment?”

Budassi stressed that governments “do not operate in a vacuum”, adding that they “must be transparent” with how they intend to approach and work with citizens at every step of the journey.

Echoing his earlier points about the survival of government nudge research, he concluded with a warning.

“If governments do not intervene, other forces will.”

Replay the full webinar now

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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