the real world today

Behavioural Anecdotes Teams

One of the more puzzling cases of British export success stories is the spread of successive generations of bad ideas on public management and government. This niche export industry has been especially successful in former British colonies like Victoria, where bedazzled political leaders and officials rub shoulders with confidants of Number 10, never stopping to question the merit of importing ideas out of context and unsuited to local affiliations. It is puzzling since the results of these ideas have been consistently poor, rather like London weather, or perhaps more too the point quite consistent with the poor functioning of government in the precariously United Kingdom. nor does political affiliation seem to matter too much. I have now sat through underwhelming presentations of quasi-political bureaucrats from the regimes of Thatcher, Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron, enriching their summer holiday with a few jejune talks on the latest management fad in Westminster. Despite sometimes elegant charm and the charisma of nearness to our colonial ancestral home, none of these fads have achieved much at all. The analyses of Christopher Hood and Patrick Dunleavy are clear: these changes have on the whole worsened productivity, muddied responsibility to the public, failed to meet their professed goals, and hosted the parasites of new governance, especially well marketed and ill-conceived consultants, that have damaged the institutions and culture of government.

The latest in this series of fairs advertising the trade secrets of failing governments is the Behavioural Insights Team, conveniently known as an acronym, BIT, with a hint of literary computer science. Also known as the Nudge Unit this unit claims to apply “very empirical” insights from behavioural science to policy and government. Led by Dr David Halpern  who once was a psychologist – I presume from the depth of his discussions of mental health, only ever a research psychologist, perhaps in the B.F. Skinner tradition -and an adviser to Tony Blair. Halpern claims an intellectual lease from Thaler, Sunstein and Kahnemann, (collusively referred to as Danny by Davy boy in his promotional talks), and a spiritual relic from the great mesmeriser. Halpern has learned the same skill of endearing, simple explanations of complex bodies of thought. The trademark idea of his Behavioural Insights Team is distilled into an anagram, EAST, that stands for easy, attractive, social and timely. These are the qualities, so behavioural science tells BIT, that governments should design into their policies and the “decision architecture” (using Thaler and Sunstein’s rather clumsier language) that will lead people to making better choices. There is an admirable skill in BIT’s presentation of ideas, which draws largely from the oral-visual tradition of management consulting, and there are a list of achievements of clever nudges that appear to have made a few decisions at least easy, attractive, social and timely.

But there is also an uneasy feeling that BIT accomplishes much less than it claims. It likes to claim it applies randomised controlled trials to policy making; but this claim is more a co-option of the charisma of medical research to vastly different social policy experiments. It likes to point to the immediate effects of its nudges; but rarely examines whether these effects endure beyond the short term horizon or a single round of the social game into which they are intervening. There is too a nagging quality to the issues they intervene in and the impacts they have. While it makes a virtue of small and easy changes, which BIT claims, with mystic convictions about butterfly wings disturbing sub-optimal equilibria, most of the successes it claims simply do not seem to be that important or that consequential: small changes in letters, that a direct marketing consultant could have proposed; reordering of appointments; changes in default options. The larger messier questions of governing are avoided because, one suspects, BIT’s methods are not that useful. When considering profound difficulties of conflicting values and interests, tired anecdotes – about folding paper one hundred times to demonstrate the the limits of our common sense cognition – do not add much at all.

Despite or even perhaps because of this imperfect track record, the Behavioural Insights Team has, however, taken the British tradition of exporting its nicely dressed, bad ideas of government to a whole new level. The team has been spun off from the Cabinet Office in the UK, and is now owned by its employees and operates as a “public sector mutual.” The Behavioural Insights Team has turned itself into a private mutual company that sells its anecdotes to the rest of the world. Dr Halpern has sold the name to a number of governments to the old colonies of Australia, and to the Bloomberg foundation in America.  He has just completed a two-year thinker in residency in Australia, during which his main project appears to have been a widely ridiculed citizen’s jury on obesity. No-one seems to ask why the Cabinet Office in the UK seemed so ready to do without the expertise of this ground-breaking team, while it went on a multi-year book tour around the world. Presumably, the UK Prime Minister felt he could do without the advice – perhaps that made things easier, more attractive, simpler and more timely for him? And maybe he found after a while that dull anecdotes were not substitute for real insights, and so he dispensed with the Behavioural Anecdotes Team in a fashionably nonsensical way, that at least would help pay the bills for advice on the issues that really mattered.

Leave a Reply