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.