Deep blue water between policy and behavioural insights

Some stark news today illustrates a point I’ve been making for a while. Sadly, this is life and death stuff.

Last October, it was reported that Britain would “not support any future search and rescue operations to prevent migrants and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, claiming they simply encourage more people to attempt the dangerous sea crossing”

This seemed like the Rational Actor Model gone mad to me. Even without the benefit of any ethnographic research (without which it’s often best to reserver opinion), was it even remotely plausible that demand for these crossings would be reduced by this decision? I thought not, so I tweeted:

The flow of refugees has of course continued since this decision, with tragic consequences. A lead item on the news, amid much hand-wringing.

My point is not: I told you so. My point is about how immature the use of behavioural insights is in government and policy making. If government were systematically applying insights from behavioural sciences to policy-making, this policy (not rescuing people, in order to influence the behaviour of potential refugees) wouldn’t have got off the drawing-board. Not because it’s immoral, but because – in behavioural terms – it’s illiterate.

Yet we’re told how influential behavioural practitioners are these days (the Independent, for example, claiming a “profound effect on Whitehall” for the BIT). That’s not how it looks to me. I’d say that we’ve influence when commissioned, in a strict supplier-client relationship. This is not real influence.

Some of us in the behavioural trade have a chuckle from time to time at attempts to influence behaviour that don’t cut the mustard. Now, it’s about time we started calling out policy that is clearly flawed.

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Why debating the ethics of applying behavioural science is a red herring

Why the debate on Nudge is a red herring (tapped out on my phone during the #LSEnudge debate):

1. We’ve previously designed services thinking everyone is an in-control homo economicus. There’s loads of recent evidence on what we’re like. Why not use it?

2. “They can’t solve everything” is not a reason to not use ‘nudges’. If policy-makers commission ‘nudges’ & don’t deal with the food industry, that’s a problem with policy making, not with decision science.

3. If you want a policy/political narrative for it, work up the idea that we can do politics better if we better understand what we’re like as a species.

4. Behaviour is context-dependent, whether you/others are trying to influence it of not. So it shouldn’t be controversial to try to influence it.

5. There are ethical issues. Why not codify them? For example, behavioural practitioners and their commissioners should only use social norm messages that are true (so you don’t say 95% pay their tax on time if it’s really 80%).

Using behavioural insights: commissioners need to get sharp

I spent an afternoon last week at Information Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, an event organised by the Design Councils’ Behavioural Design Lab. Maybe I’m lazy, but the main thing I took from it was a confirmation of something that has been becoming very in my work: that practitioners who apply insights from behavioural sciences in the policy sphere and in public services (and there aren’t many of us) need to challenge our clients to be very clear about the behavioural outcomes they want.

This may seem an obvious point to make, but I don’t think it is. Why? First, there is no established market for public service commissioning of behavioural insights, so commissioners have little experience to draw on. Second, so much policy is designed on the false assumption that people are rational, economic beings that there are likely to be some false assumptions built in to any default view of behavioural goals.

Let me illustrate this.

Felicity Algate from the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team showed a prototype smartphone app that would enable people to compare their energy bill with the putative bill from competing energy companies, and to switch supplier with one click. In terms of providing feedback, applying mere exposure effect, and reducing goal dilution (a real barrier to switching), it’s great. It’s a real “if only all public services could be like this” moment.

But it does raise plenty of policy issues. For one thing, what are the carbon implications (given that the UK has self-imposed carbon budgets to meet by law)? Well, first, let’s be clear that paying less for energy does not increase energy efficiency, which is improved by reducing the energy input required for a given output, not by making it cheaper! Plenty of switching campaigns make this mistake, which in policy or behavioural terms is a significant error (sorry Calderdale, I had to pick on someone). Second, switching suppliers to pay less could increase energy usage. Third, there is an (arguably underfunded) policy drive to help people reduce household energy bills be reducing usase, through the Green Deal, hence a real risk of lack of clarity on how to manage energy bills, with damaging behavioural outcomes.  (I should point out that, at the event, others raised risks around the potential behaviour of companies in a market operating in this way; I’m only thinking here about the behaviour policy-makers encourage in citizens). In summary, there’s a case to be made that this is great innovation using behavioural insights, to serve a policy goal that isn’t very smart behaviourally.

In contrast, Felicity also illustrated the use of text messages to encourage people to pay fines (already in the public domain). This is surely a good use of behavioural insights, bringing a public service into line with current knowledge, but also uncontestable in policy terms. Not only is justice being served, but ‘clients’ stand to save the £200 that would otherwise be added to their fine to pay bailiffs.

My point, in summary: taking behavioural sciences seriously means applying them to policy considerations, not merely applying them once the policy thinking is done. And for those of us working in the field, that means not always accepting a commissioner’s brief ‘as is’.