The ambiguous nature of today’s behavioural government

Sarah Ball and Joram Feitsma

One of the major trends within the contemporary policy scene is ‘the use of behavioural insights (BI)’ to improve policymaking. All around the world, from Qatar to England and Japan, ‘Behavioural Insights Teams’ (or ‘BITs’), ‘Nudge advisers’ and ‘Chief Behavioural Officers’ now inhabit government, seeking to infuse it with state-of-the-art knowledge and methods from the behavioural sciences. The more specific signature traits of this BI agenda appear to be its focus on new behavioural economics, nudge techniques and Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs). The COVID-19 crisis hasn’t hampered the behavioural momentum – quite the contrary: in the absence of a distributed vaccine, halting the spread of the coronavirus has very much been a behaviour change challenge, with BI being in great demand. The recent launch of dedicated ‘COVID-19 Teams’ and ‘Corona Behavioural Units’ within the UK’s and Dutch policy scene didn’t come as a surprise, and only confirmed that behavioural government is here to stay.

Intriguingly enough, though, one question about the new institutional praxis of ‘using BI’ remains not yet convincingly answered: What is it, really?

In our Evidence & Policy article, ‘The boundaries of Behavioural Insights: observations from two ethnographic studies’, we explored this basic question – based on two independently undertaken ethnographic studies of Behavioural Insight Teams and associated practices. One study focused on Australian Federal Government (Ball), the other on Dutch local and central government (Feitsma). Through various rounds of explorative comparative analysis, we found some interesting consistencies but perhaps even more intriguing areas of contingency. It leads us to conclude that the nature of behavioural government, despite its presentation as a coherent and well-demarcated praxis, is actually quite ambiguous, chameleonic. What ‘using BI’ means is continuously changing and in the process of being adapted and tailored.   

Starting with the consistencies, the studied behavioural practitioners all carried out a similar type of narrative, focused on four elements: behavioural science theory, nudges, RCTs and evidence-based policy. Practitioners shared assorted ‘heroes’, role models and core texts. The work of the UK BIT, psychologists Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, Dan Ariely and behavioural economists like Richard Thaler were well-known and promoted across both teams. Furthermore, experts shared a number of tools and techniques, particularly the reliance on nudges and diagnostic, step-by-step types of policy design approaches.

But there were also areas of contingency. The first was in regard to method versus theory. Practitioners appeared to work along a spectrum which, at one end, highlighted a focus on experimental methods, a desire to find out ‘what works’, while the other focused on applying theories of human decision-making drawn from a broad range of behavioural science disciplines.

A second division was between those who saw RCTs as the go-to method for evaluation as opposed to the more pragmatic pluralists. For the purists, RCTs possessed an exclusive epistemic authority in making claims about ‘what works’. Others accepted that multiple methods, each in their own way, were seen to provide valuable information for policy design.

A third division was between the types of disciplinary knowledge promoted.While all practitioners relied to some extent on behavioural science, some were more strictly tied to particular disciplines than others.

Follow-up questions would ask why behavioural government appears so ambiguous in practice and how it is possible that such different practices are operating under what is still perceived as one idea? It may simply be that as BI is travelling across nations and continents, and as the field is at a relatively early stage of development and institutionalisation, its boundaries are still being defined. Additionally, practitioners may reap important benefits from having more porous backstage boundaries, while at the same time possessing well-defined boundaries at the frontstage. Such a hybrid constellation allows space for the development of pluralist and alternative approaches without evoking conflict and without appearing boundaryless and incoherent at the frontstage.

There may, however, also be risks attached to the broad narrative and backstage fluidity. The tactical use of ambiguity may also backfire into a disorienting situation in which the field suffers from ‘boundary issues’, ultimately endangering the field’s epistemic authority and legitimacy.

The COVID-19 crisis seems to hint at some of these ‘boundary issues’. Within the UK’s policy scene, behavioural expertise has grown in a position where it has gained significant influence at important times and places of decision-making, and where, instead of offering micro-level solutions for marginal, depoliticized issues, it now seems to be delivering advice on some of the most pressing issues – including the UK’s national crisis response. Yet, besides the influence gained, the field was also challenged on its theoretical boundaries, especially with the spread of the notion of ‘behavioural fatigue’ which has been associated with behavioural insights thinking in both public and political debate. This case further illustrates many of the observations in our article, both the success of an ambiguous BI agenda but also the legitimacy challenges that may ultimately follow.


Sarah Ball recently completed her Ph.D. at the University of Queensland, within the Institute of Social Science Research. Her doctoral research included an ethnographic study on a central behavioural insights team with the aim of better understanding barriers and facilitators to the use of behavioural insights in Australia. She now works as a research assistant at the University of Queensland on multiple projects which are exploring how knowledge and evidence influence and shape the actions of public servants – both at the front line and in the halls of government.

Joram Feitsma is a researcher, lecturer and trainer at Utrecht University School of Governance, the Netherlands.


You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Ball, S. and Feitsma, J. (2020). The boundaries of Behavioural Insights: observations from two ethnographic studies. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426419X15643724702722.


Image credit: Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash


If you enjoyed this blog post, you may also be interested to read:

The new evidence-based policy: public participation between ‘hard evidence’ and democracy in practice [Open Access]

A comparative ethnographic study of collective knowledge brokering across the syntactic, semantic and pragmatic knowledge boundaries in applied health research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s