Can Public Policy Cope With Behavioural Sciences?

Lord Krebs, incoming President of the British Science Association was reported last week as criticising government use of ‘nudges’ But it seems that this amounts merely to a reservation are that using behavioural insights shouldn’t be a “get out of jail card if the government wants to avoid tougher approaches like taxation and regulation”. Which shoots down in flames a case that precisely no practitioners are making in the first place.

In fact, making public policy choices informed by behavioural science is on the verge of being accepted into the mainstream – in principle at least. This is quite something for what was a trendy discussion topic only a handful of years ago.

In the long run, what will surely happen is that the main thread of the case for using behavioural insights (that we are “predictably irrational”, so policy and services need to reflect this) will change. I predict it will be turned on its head, and I’m going to do what I can to make sure it is. Why? Because our true nature, our loss aversion, our temporal discounting, the heuristics we use are, in fact, completely rational, given the way our species has evolved. We only appear to be irrational when viewed through the lens of economists and philosophers whose assumptions were never true. Sorry, but humans are not rational economic agents, operating in an economy heading for equilibrium (and credit is due to IPPR for bringing this understanding closer to the mainstream with its Complex New World report).

Putting this growing acceptance into practice, though, is being held back by a number of things. First, the number of practitioners (that is, people who help bodies apply behavioural insights) is small; second, and a chief cause of #1, there isn’t a clear market for commissioning behavioural work in public services where this is not well established; third (and, of course a chief cause of #2), it doesn’t ‘belong’ to any existing profession. So while behavioural insights have informed the work of designers and advertisers for decades, that’s just not true in public policy. So what’s becoming mainstream in principle is being held back in practice.

If I’m right, then over the next few years, we’ll have to face up to the real challenges of public policy catching up with the evidence base and making decisions based on what people are really like, not what Enlightenment thinkers and classical economists say that we’re like. These challenges should be much more substantial than the red herring debates to date (such as that around the House of Lords Select Committee report)

An event I’m doing with Political Innovation aims to highlight one such practical challenge, namely the tension between using insights from behavioural sciences and an approach that progressive voices, myself included, are rightly positive about: co-design. In participative democracy, participation and service design, co-design with citizens and users is surely a good thing. Is it not a way of cementing the move away from the ‘we know best’ style of decision-making which has rhetorically been a no-no for twenty years, but which we all privately admit still prevails?

Here’s the problem, though: Why would I, as a citizen, play a part in designing a service which aims to prompt certain behaviour on my part with cues which I consider irrational or childish? As a policy maker, what is my response to this: accept that the human inclination to think that we are much more in control of our actions than we really are trumps proven, scientific insight? The risk is that the use of behavioural insights becomes an extension of ‘we know best’ policy-making. And that’s what we’re trying to avoid, isn’t it?

I’m not sure I have the answers, but I’m pretty sure that the questions here are going to be important. Come along on 25 September if you can.

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