Why is the Government so obsessed with trendy behavioural theories best left to self-absorbed TEDsters when the country is going to the dogs, asks Mic Wright.
Senior advisors in No. 10 haven’t got any less barmy since Steve Hilton flew off to American to “blue sky” some solutions in California, where that kind of weather is a lot more common. Their current obsession is “nudge” theory: a trendy cluster of strategies designed to show how small changes in how choices are presented to inspire major behavioural change.
Nudge theory is nothing new. It’s simply that since the book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, was published in 2008, political wonks have passed it around like teenage boys banging on about On The Road.
Speak to old hands in the civil service and they’ll grumble loudly about how obsession with nudge theory has infected every decision coming out of the Coalition government. The blame lies with No. 10’s Behavioural Insights Team – also known as the Nudge Unit (which sounds like a god-awful rap crew) – which believes it can revolutionise Government.
Sadly, it seems like the small band of guerrilla warriors fighting for the cause of trendy ideas have some significant allies in both the current Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy Heywood, and his predecessor, Lord O’Donnell, smiling broadly upon their efforts. O’Donnell even chairs the Behavioural Insights Team’s advisory unit and has talked about it bringing a “revolution” to Whitehall.
Shocker: there are Bolsheviks in No. 10, and they have iPads.
It’s not surprising that a former PR man like David Cameron would be so taken with digital-first behavioural economics ideas initially dreamed up to help firms flog products faster and more efficiently online. But is it right for the Government to approach British citizens as “consumers” of its services? The language reminds me of “stakeholders” under New Labour.
Nudgeniks would point to what they claim are already massive successes: trials to deal with unpaid fines using text messages rather than letters suggest there is a 15 per cent rise in responses. Follow up with a text warning that bailiffs are coming and the numbers jump to 30 per cent. Well, hurrah for that.
Tinkering in those areas is fine – just as Grant Shapps, the housing minister, is planning to bring the technique to a new right-to-buy scheme. That makes sense. But it’s important for Government not to run away with trendy ideas about “personalisation” while HMRC is being busted for data foul-ups and the Home Office is the place where computer projects go to overspend, die and rot before a minister is sacked for not cleaning them up.
Not all mandarins marvel at the Nudge as enthusiastically as O’Donnell and Heywood. There is a sense elsewhere that the thrusting, chaotic types who once put David Cameron next to huskies are trying to run a “gimmick Government”. Cameron’s much-vaunted iPad app is called “absurd”.
And unhinged proposals such as the mooted £100,000 prize draw for individuals who pay their tax on time have been put on ice, perhaps because they are insane. A senior civil servant told The Kernel that “many proposals are causing laughter and disdain in equal measure”.
The public already feels that it is manipulated by a political class that understands little about the realities of those living below the privileged millionaire level, nor much about the technology used to badger people into accord with the prevailing establishment winds. Nudgeniks think they can wheedle and cajole citizens without being noticed using a blend of psychology and technology, but I fear that they are mistaken: look at the growing irritation with the Olympic organisers and the MoD’s rooftop missiles.
The other major issue with the Nudge Unit is that it represents an elite trying to work out how to get the rest of us to do things we don’t want to do. One thing Labour never learned is that most people don’t like being nannied. So we should resist the TED-obsessed, Malcolm Gladwellification of Government. Policies should come from experience, rational argument and from a sense of trying to achieve a programme rather than tinkering with Britain as though it were a Scalextric track.
Steve Hilton leaving day-to-day Government was a great moment for all right-thinking people in politics. Now can we nudge the rest of them to get real too?