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Monday, 14 November 2011

Governing insights

‘The Nudge Unit’ has had a fair bit of press lately – including a recent review of its work on Radio 4 (worth a listen). Yet although this is good news for the public profile of behavioural economics (BE), it sometimes gives the impression that BE is the domain of a select few, not a practical option for local government.

With this in mind, we were interested to hear what would be said at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) event: ‘Behavioural economics and its role in policy making’. The seminar included a presentation from central government that made it clear how seriously they take BE.

Here are three key points that resonated with us:
1.    Prioritise insight
Understanding your audience through psychology is an important part of the equation. Many policymakers still rely on using surveys, despite the fact that they only measure explicit attitudes and are skewed by the environment in which the survey is taken, the person asking the questions and the way that questions are framed.

2.    Beyond government
The subject of behavioural economics is a hot topic that introduces a new system of thinking. The implications and uses for our society are widespread – certainly not limited to government.

3.    Nudge locally
The central government’s ‘nudge unit’ is doing some great work, from persuading people to pay taxes or donate organs through to getting people to complete forms properly (one pilot study found that asking for a signature at the top of a legal document rather than at the end made people less likely to make careless errors). Yet despite the importance of centralised work, the session really emphasised the role of local authorities in taking the lead.  They were described as being ‘better placed’ to understand and address the unique needs of their city – and thus to influence behaviour at a local level.

The fact that the event was heavily oversubscribed may well indicate an appetite within the localities to pick up the 'nudge baton'.

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