Liz Richardson and Peter John
Behaviour change policies, known as nudges, have been used by governments across the world to get people to behave in pro-social ways, such as making healthier lifestyle choices or reducing their environmental footprints. Nudges use behavioural insights to steer people into doing the right thing, while also giving them the choice. Critics argue that traditional nudge policies are top-down, manipulative and un-transparent. Nudge policies seem to expect the worse in people, and are easy to caricature as a technocratic approaches to policy design.
However, a new kind of nudge – ‘nudge plus’ – has started to spring up. Nudge plus tackles the risks of paternalism in traditional approaches through the participation of those being nudged. If nudges are going to be even more ‘bottom-up’, how can such behavioural public policies be developed?
In a recent article published in Evidence and Policy, ‘Co-designing behavioural public policy: lessons from the field about how to ‘nudge plus’’, we make a compelling case for using design principles to generate this new breed of participatory nudges. Design principles argue for trans-disciplinary work, which means drawing on knowledge from across academic disciplines, and beyond academia, to encourage many forms of expertise. Using these multiple forms of expertise brings together the best of academic thinking and evidence, citizen reflection, and technical expertise, to shape behavioural public policies.
Our article uses a case study of our own research to illustrate what an iterative learning-by-doing process might look like for actual public policy design. The story starts with a classic top-down nudge intervention, tested using a field experiment with a social housing organisation partner. The intervention was a washout. As useful as null results might be in the grand scale of things, the lack of success was still a blow to our aspirations for behaviour change. After licking the null-results wounds, our partner started trying to work out what might be more effective. And from there, a design lab started to evolve, incrementally, with frontline staff, residents, academics, and others how to learn from experience and data to amend the policies in more effective ways. The case is an example of what is possible.
We conclude that there need to be more design labs and design partnerships used in designing behavioural policies like nudge plus. Design and nudge don’t have to be separate, neat packages, dominated by technical and scientific experts. Nudges can also be bottom-up. Let us acknowledge -even embrace- the messiness of policy and administration on the ground. In this way, nudge plusses may emerge naturally as a result of the evolutionary co-design process. So often the worlds of behaviour change and design labs operate in separate worlds, partly because of different disciplinary backgrounds: the former an outcrop of economics and evaluation, with economists and trial experts dominating, the latter with more of an arts base, as well as sociology. But this separation can be overcome. The happy accident that brought these two worlds together in this case study might be replicated with greater cross-over by introducing behaviour change policies with a design-based approach.
Prof Liz Richardson is Professor of Public Administration at the University of Manchester, UK.
Prof Peter John is Head of the School of Politics and Economics, King’s College London, UK.
You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:
Richardson, L. and John, P. (2021). Co-designing behavioural public policy: lessons from the field about how to ‘nudge plus’. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426420X16000979778231.
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