Baroness Neuberger, chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee, was on the Radio 4 today programme. yesterday. Her thesis seemed to be that nudging techniques alone are not sufficient to tackle some of the huge challenges that our country faces, such as climate change or obesity.
Well that was the headline anyway … Firstly, the report didn’t actually attack nudging, only that it shouldn’t be applied in isolation and secondly the media reports seem to miss the fact that the select committee’s report was based on two case studies. One of those case studies was all about encouraging a significant reduction in car use, if we are to have any chance of meeting agreed carbon reduction targets. However, I’ve not seen any significant press coverage on this point.
The Baroness’ select committee report, apparently, at least attacks civil servants for their interpretation of the steer that they are getting from their political masters, or possibly the policies themselves. On one hand, the Government are stating a preference for the consideration of behaviour science techniques (which the scrutiny committee applauded); but at the same time, they are also taking away the financial freedoms for Government Departments to be able to do anything else anyway. The select committee argues that the nudge alone is not enough.
On the Today programme, the Times columnist, Philip Collins, argued that there is an ideology behind nudging: “There’s a feeling that it’s better if things are done in a voluntary way, rather than through regulation and the state.” But, both agreed that nudging was only part of the solution. Philip trotted out defaults the classic examples of auto-enrolment on pensions, organ donation and “save more tomorrow schemes”.
The truth behind the headlines, as ever, is more balanced. For instance, one of the key recommendations from the select committee report is that the Government should appoint an independent Chief Social Scientist to provide them with robust and independent scientific advice and to advise and shape the development of such policies. If the Sub-Committee really felt that these policies had no part to play then what would be the point of such an advisor. The BBC was just trying to make a headline, along with previous ones such as “Nudge or Fudge ?”.
That isn’t to say that nudges are the ultimate panacea. Of course, many times we will need to consider the environment (such as regulation) within which nudges will sit. If you’ve read Thaler’s book, you’ll know that the first “[i]N” in Nudge stands for incentives – he never saw “pure social science” standing alone. However, what is important with the behaviour science approach is to design the overall package of measures together so that they can be mutually re-enforcing. We all know what if we hear nine pieces of advice that we don’t like, but just one that we do like; then we’re much more likely to take comfort in the tenth piece of information as it sits nicely with our current world view and gives us an excuse not to have to change.
Baroness Neuberger also challenged whether there was any catalogued evidence that nudging works, at a societal level. She felt the case had only been proven at an individual level. She argued that you may get a marginal difference in individual behaviour; but the Government are not doing the evaluations correctly when applied to a population. With organ donation, she argued that actually the thing that would make the difference was training of the staff. (It is that classic problem that in the real world, you can never set up an “experiment” such that you can only change one thing at a time – not at a realistic level, for a topic that matters quite so much – and hence you can never be quite sure which of the interventions that you made that be be credited with causing the difference.)
Of course, there is a massive “Catch 22” situation in this argument. Unless we undertake the interventions then we’ve got no chance of being able to gather the appropriate evidence. Also, it is a brave project manager, who cancels something essential for his own project in favour funding the evidential framework in order to assess whether the intervention worked in practice and support future projects. (The solution, by the way, is for the programme manager to set the context and mandate the use of the appropriate evidential frameworks and to give the project manager freedom to set financial priorities within his project. It also takes the right culture for the project manager and the programme manager to be prepared to willingly cut entire projects – even their own – because there aren’t sufficient funds to do “everything necessary” and it is better to do everything necessary on a smaller number of projects than it is to do a large number of parts of projects. Unfortunately, such cuts don’t necessarily make the best PR when communicating this approach.)
Completely missing from the headlines was the fact that one of the two case studies that the Select Committee looked at was: reducing the reliance of the British public on the car.
One of their specific recommendations from the Select Committee was that the Government should:
(a) establish and publish targets for a reduction in carbon emissions as a result of a reduction in car use;
(b) publish an estimate of the percentage reduction in emissions which will be achieved through reducing car use and the timescale for its achievement; and
(c) set out details of the steps they will take if this percentage reduction is not achieved by this time.
You can listen again to Tuesday’s Radio 4 Today Programme (at 07:50) at: bbc.
You can see a slightly longer video report by the Baroness on the www.parliament.uk site.
You can also download the reports there at: