Nudge and the state

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Professor Alex Marsh, Head of the School for Policy Studies

Last week I took part in an enjoyable discussion on nudge policy as part of Thinking Futures, the annual festival of social sciences. Through a slightly mysterious process I ended up speaking in favour of nudge-type policies, while Fiona Spotswood from UWE made the case against relying on behaviour change initiatives. Fiona made a robust case. I have to say mine was a little less than compelling, in part because in reality I have quite a lot of sympathy with the critics. I find debating from a position you don’t entirely agree with more successful on some days and some topics than on others. This was not one of the better days.

Nonetheless, I find the topic of nudge, and behaviour change policy more broadly, fascinating because it raises so many issues.

Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge was published in 2008 and has subsequently generated a vast critical response. Such a response is not uncommon. But what is rarer is that it has got everyone worked up. There is barely a discipline across the social sciences and humanities that hasn’t had something to say on the matter. Thaler is an economist and Sunstein a lawyer, but the critical response has gone beyond those fields to include philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, geographers, management, marketing, public health and public policy scholars. We have also seen cognitive and behavioural scientists offering views on the issue.

The critical response has addressed nudge from a wide variety of angles. Much of literature addresses the ethics of nudge. Is it ethical for governments to seek to exploit known systematic biases in human cognition in order to assist individuals in meeting ends they would desire, if they had stopped to think about it? A whole host of questions follow: how are those ends identified and by whom? Does this constitute manipulation? Is it acceptable or unacceptable for governments to manipulate in the ‘public interest’? Is it coercion? Is this the thin end of a wedge that leads to authoritarianism or even fascism (which is part of the critical response primarily among more libertarian-inclined lawyers/economists in the US)?

Is a failure on the part of government to nudge simply allowing other (private sector) economic actors a free hand to nudge individuals in all directions, without any countervailing action to mitigate the worst effects of private nudges? Perhaps the simplest way to make that point is to consider the nudge argument that if you place healthy food more prominently near the checkout in a cafeteria, rather than the confectionary that is usually there, then it increases the likelihood that people will eat healthily. Critics object to government manipulating choices in this way. But the prior question is why is the confectionary there in the first place? It is, of course, because the manufacturers of sweets know that we are prone to temptation and impulse purchases while standing in line. They are manipulating a systematic bias in our decision-making.

Of course, the alternative response to this problem is to seek to do something about the way private actors manipulate choice in the first place, rather than surreptitiously nudging in the opposite direction. But that would require a braver government than any we have seen in recent years.

A second strand of the argument focuses on the evidence base underpinning policy proposals. How well attested are these behavioural effects? One simple criticism of the literature is that much of the original experimental data comes from studies of the decision making practices of US undergraduates. To what extent do these conclusions generalise? Behavioural economics tends to assume that generalisation is unproblematic, but that is hardly a sound starting point for policy. Under the UK Coalition government the policy debate about behaviour change has been one area where considerable prominence has been placed on the role of evidence and on policy pilots. But it is an area in which one type of evidence – that drawn from randomised controlled trials – is seen as pretty much the start and finish of the conversation.

A third strand of argument is about the efficacy of nudge. Even if we accept that there is robust evidence of systematic biases in cognition (such as the tendency to weight current consumption more heavily than future costs when making decisions) what can be done with this information? Most importantly, is it a substitute or complement to other forms of government action? Can nudge be used instead of more paternalistic regulation, for example? This is a point that governments have been rather vague on. Nudge, when it arrived on the scene, was viewed as being able to stand in for more interventionist approaches. But this position has subsequently been modified in the face of criticism. It may be possible to improve social outcomes in modest ways using nudge techniques, but it is hopelessly underpowered for addressing some of the major challenges facing society.

Finally, there is the fact that “nudge” is rather elusive. By that I mean that it doesn’t refer to a very clearly defined set of actions. Or rather it has been applied to a wide range of actions and interventions that don’t really accord very well with the original definition of a nudge offered by Thaler and Sunstein – a definition which has, itself, been heavily criticised. The Government’s Behavioural Insights Team was colloquially referred to as the “nudge unit” but it drew much more broadly on insights from social psychology and behavioural science than simply focusing on nudges of the Thaler and Sunstein variety. There are now quite a number of other approaches to behaviour change circulating. Some of them have similarly catchy labels (think, steer, budge, shove). Some of them start from very different premises to nudge itself. Some have had an impact on policy in particular fields – with much of the running being made by the debate in public health. Some of them have yet to make much of an impact on policymaking in practice. The academic discussion is a riot of theoretical innovation, with various frameworks and heuristics being proposed. Some are engaged in the hard graft of evaluation and synthesis, with the aim of being clearer regarding what works, when and how.

An outstanding question is whether as the accounts of behaviour change become more complex and nuanced they start to lose their purchase on policy – which typically wants simple messages leading to clear prescriptions. But that is simply another case of the perennial tension between research and policy.

This post was originally published on Alex’s Archives.

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Policy & Politics conference 2014

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In what has become an annual event, the Policy & Politics conference was held in Bristol in September 2014. Policy & Politics is an academic journal that centres on the areas of public and social policy. The journal is published by Policy Press and has long been associated with the School for Policy Studies, who currently provide a co-editor (Sarah Ayres, Reader in Public Policy and Governance) and two Associate Editors (Noemi Lendvai, Lecturer in Comparative Public Policy, and David Sweeting, Senior Lecturer in Urban Studies).

In the array of panels at this year’s Policy and Politics conference were three linked panels on directly elected mayors, containing twelve papers from five countries. These panels linked clearly to the overall conference theme of challenges of leadership in collaboration in the 21st century. Directly elected mayors are often seen as a reform to help improve the leadership of cities, in part by facilitating or leading collaboration between actors both within, and well beyond, the boundaries of urban areas.

The panels, and the topic of directly elected mayors more generally, are addressed in Alex Marsh’s ‘Policy Unpacked’ series of podcasts, hosted on Alex’s blog. You can listen to the podcast here.

David Sweeting is Senior Lecturer, and Alex Marsh is Professor, in the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. Alex is also Head of the School.

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Food security and food poverty as seen from Bristol

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Richard Sheldon, Lecturer in Social and Economic History, reports on an event on food access and security held at the University of Bristol

The Trussell Trust charity has recently announced that it has seen demand for support from its food banks triple over the past year. Similar reports have recently been published by Bristol based food charities.  Last week the Archbishop of Canterbury equated the suffering of those who use food banks with that in Syria and the Ukraine, and an All-Party Parliamentary group has been launched to investigate the growing problem of hunger and food poverty in Britain.  All this lent a real interest, even urgency, to the proceedings of the recent Cabot Institute day seminar on the security of household food access in Bristol and beyond, organised by Patricia Lucas from the School for Policy Studies at the University of Bristol. How did we come to face such a predicament seventy years on from the Beveridge Report and the founding of the Welfare State? Should these circumstances even arise in what is the world’s sixth largest economy? What can scholars do to improve public debate on these issues?

The seminar attracted a wide range of participants ranging from academics to activists and scientists working on sustainable livestock. All were united by a concern with the problem of food security from the local to the global. Patricia Lucas introduced the day and the session on food welfare and food poverty. Eldin Fahmy reported some of the findings of the Poverty and Social Exclusion project, painting a gloomy picture about the impact of the long recession and state-imposed austerity measures on deprivation and social exclusion. Liz Dowler, University of Warwick and Hannah Lambie-Mumford, University of Sheffield came to the meeting hot off the train from presenting evidence to the Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty in Britain to speak on food poverty and food charity. Kevin Morgan delivered a keynote lecture on securing a healthy diet: the personal, the political and the planning challenges

I attended the seminar as a social and economic historian hoping to learn from the sessions, but also to speak and attempt to underline the ways in which Bristol is a very useful place to stand in in order to understand the evolution of the production, distribution and consumption of modern foodstuffs. The origin of so many pressing global problems such as rapid population growth and global warming all stem from the period of the Industrial Revolution. Bristol was an early importer of foodstuffs from Europe and beyond beginning in the middle ages. The city and port also played an important role in importing and processing the modern luxuries of sugar and tobacco which helped ease the transition from an agrarian to an urban and industrial society. There were lots of sometimes surprising overlaps in all of our concerns and sometimes our concepts. The notion of food sovereignty was widely endorsed alongside the need to make food a central rather than an incidental part of health and education policy. In particular Kevin Morgan addressed ‘the public plate’ and closed by using the concept of a ‘moral economy’.

Michael Lee from Bristol’s School for Veterinary Sciences spoke about the development of ’the robust cow’  – an improved breed of cattle that would graze upon grass rather than be fed on grains. Xiajun Wang from the School of Economics, Finance and Management spoke about the management of the global food chain.

The day closed with participation from public office holders, activists and campaigners in Bristol. Gus Hoyt, Angela Raffle and Mark Goodway all discussed new initiatives in the city including the ‘Good Food Plan’ for Bristol and an initiative by the Matthew Tree charity to form a new supermarket run on ethical and sustainable lines in Knowle West, a Bristol suburb currently ill-served the large chains.

Much of the evidence presented, challenges posed, and conclusions drawn made for sombre reflection, but above all I was hugely lifted by the presence of so many articulate and informed voices all seeking to make a difference on stages from the local to the global. I hope we will be able to build on this beginning and take the project further through networking and future collaborations. The seminar lunch menu, comprising locally-sourced delicious produce, also made a pleasant change from the usual conference fare. There was such an exciting buzz around the proceedings that I am sure new initiatives will be forged and research partnerships launched.

 

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Policy & Politics Annual Lecture 2014: Bringing Politics Alive: Engaging the Disengaged in the 21st Century

On 27th March 2014 David Blunkett MP visited the University of Bristol to give the annual Policy & Politics lecture. To get a flavour of what was a fascinating evening, take a look at the short film we have produced to capture the event.

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Towards a global parliament of mayors?

Alex Marsh reports on an event at the Bristol Festival of Ideas. This post first appeared at PolicyBristol Hub.

if-mayors-ruled-the-world-198x300How should a world characterised by increasingly complex interdependence be governed? If most of the major challenges we face have no respect for the artificial borders marking out nation states, how can we identify and deliver effective solutions?

The answer Benjamin Barber offered in his stimulating presentation on Monday night is that we need to look to cities. More specifically, we need to look to mayors. His case is in part rooted in the fact of an increasingly urban future. But it is also based upon the characteristics he identifies as distinctive to mayoral governance. This is an argument developed at greater length in his new book If mayors ruled the world: Dysfunctional nations, rising cities (Yale University Press).

Barber starts from the premise that we can no longer look to the nation state to find solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. The nation state may have made sense when social and economic problems were contained within borders. That is not the world we inhabit now. Even if a problem starts as local, it can soon become global.

But in a world of interdependence the community of nations has time and again proved itself unable to deliver an effective response. Whether it be policy on climate change, security, migration or public health, attempts to find cross-national solutions are as likely to result in stalemate or veto by individual sovereign states as they are to result in decisive action. When problems demand collaborative solutions, nation states can find it hard to move beyond their competitive impulses.

Equally importantly, nation states fail to secure the sort of broad-based democratic support that is necessary to deliver legitimacy to radical solutions. This is because of the limited and rather abstract nature of national citizenship. It is a citizenship of rights, without meaningful obligations that have an everyday urgency.

Barber contrasts this with the way in which mayors operate. Models of mayoral governance differ in their detail, but their defining characteristic is pragmatism. Barber’s argument has a strongly structural flavour. He argues that for mayors “issues shape behaviour in common ways” and that “ideology doesn’t serve them very well;  and nor do political parties”. Mayors need to find solutions to real problems that affect the day to day lives of hundreds of thousands of people. (more…)

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Citizens, mayors and democracy in the city

As part of Democracy Week in Bristol, last Friday academics from the University of Bristol and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) took part in a seminar on citizens, mayors and democracy in the city. The event drew on research co-produced with research partners in local communities, including local policy communities. The participation of colleagues from Mexico was made possible by support from the British Academy. In this post Jo Howard, the SPS doctoral student responsible for organising the event, gives her perspective on the afternoon’s discussions.

Both Mexico City and Bristol now have directly elected mayors. Both cities are experimenting with ways of engaging citizens beyond the ballot box. In Mexico City, citizens can take part in participatory budgeting. In Bristol, neighbourhood partnerships bring residents, councillors and service providers together to address local issues and make decisions about local service provision. The seminar explored to what extent these mechanisms deepen democracy. And if citizens have more decision-making power, how does this affect the role of councillors? (more…)

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