Food labelling: another example of needing behaviour-smart policy-makers

The current news about a new food labelling system, ably covered by Ed Gardiner in his blog for the Behavioural Design Lab, reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s telling point in Thinking Fast and Slow in reference to food labelling in the US. Given the chance, marketing people will prefer to label a food as “90% fat-free”, rather than “10% fat”, because we’ll be more likely to buy it. They’re framing the information in a positive way; for the same reason, we’re more likely to consent to a medical procedure with a 99% survival rate than one with a 1% death rate – though they are, of course, the same operation.

This gives me another chance to say something that, I hope, bears repeating: we need people in policy-making and service-design roles who have a good understanding of decision sciences. If not, we don’t do public services and relationships as well as we might; or, worse, in the public health context, it can mean that those with more interest in short-term sales than health outcomes are able to run rings round policy-makers.

Action / re-action

Is it just me, or does it feel as though public policy is getting increasingly reactive? My analysis of what is driving changing change among local government and its partners is that the drivers fall into three categories. First, there is a whole set of agendas relating to efficiency and productivity – getting more for less, essentially. The second set of agendas centre around the changing relationship between the citizen and the state – choice, personalisation, user focus, and so on. Both these categories represent the continuation of policy development that you can track back over time, often for a decade or more, as thinking and policy making has developed. There’s a third category that you might call the ‘blindsiders’ as they become agendas due to events, sometimes more or less out of the blue. This includes demographic factors such as migration or the ageing population, and realities such as the credit crunch and climate change (the two CCs), not to mention food and oil prices. I have no evidence for this, but it feels to me as if the third category is getting bigger. If policy making is getting more reactive, is this simply a return to the norm? Or perhaps this is one of those things that goes in cycles. And, if it’s true, is this a good thing or a bad thing? Instinctively, if you work on strategies, you are bound have reservations about an approach that’s more re-active than pro-active. And yet, aren’t the sort of issues contained in this category the type of issues that can engage the public in politics and decision making? As a citizen, I suspect that the effects of the credit crunch, food prices and climate change are easier to engage with, if I believe that the state can have an impact, than a ‘choice agenda’ or community empowerment as an end in itself.