So How Do Nudge Units Work?

This week we take a look at two different kinds of nudge units, and explore their workings: Uk and New York Nudge Units

So How Do Nudge Units Work?
Do all nudge units work on the same lines, or are there differences. This week we take a look at two different kinds of nudge units, and explore their workings.
In recent years, governments worldwide have quietly embraced a revolutionary approach known as "nudging". To utilize behavioural science principles to influence and encourage specific behaviours among citizens, interdisciplinary teams known as nudge units are established within existing structures. Since the late 2000s when the first nudge unit was formed, over 200 public policy units around the world have incorporated behavioural insights into their strategies. These teams employ various techniques of nudging to address intricate issues like retirement savings adequacy, tax compliance improvement and promoting healthy lifestyles amongst others.
Nudge units have gained popularity due to their effectiveness, broad applicability, and measurable outcomes. This signifies a paradigm shift in moving away from traditional models assuming rational decision-making based solely on self-interest. Nudge units acknowledge that human decision-making is often influenced by cognitive biases, emotions, and social factors, rather than just economic considerations. While nudges have faced scepticism, their efficacy in influencing behaviour change is increasingly supported by evidence. Units like the behavioural Insights Team(BIT) show promise in promoting healthy habits and tax compliance. However, questions remain about their overall impact on individual welfare compared to larger-scale interventions, as well as their long-term sustainability.
Understanding how nudge units operate can provide valuable insights into ethical implications when designing behavioural intervention strategies. It is worth noting that the initiation of the nudge theory in government has historically come from positions of authority rather than public demand. While involving academic experts and federal executives in policymaking based on human behaviour is not inherently problematic, there is an increased risk of abuse if measures lack popular support. Therefore, gaining a comprehensive understanding of nudge units, including their political allegiances and objectives, can inform assessments of similar units that have emerged at the municipal level.
Inside UK's Nudge Unit
Let's take a closer look at the pioneering nudge unit in the UK, known as the Behavioural Insight Team (BIT). The team initially consisted of 7 members from diverse backgrounds in economics, psychology, and policy. The establishment of BIT as a national nudge unit gained support during a cabinet meeting, where Halpern presented the success of their first behavioural trials. Sir Gus O'Donnell, Liam Byrne, and economist Paul Dolan collaborated on a report linking human behaviour and public policy, further bolstering support for nudging in the UK.
David Halpern introduced MINDSPACE, a comprehensive guide to behavioural insights that replaced the earlier SNAP framework. MINDSPACE highlights factors policymakers should consider, such as the messenger delivering information, incentives, social norms, defaults, salience effects, priming effects, emotional affect, commitments, and ego-driven actions.
Nudging gained support from both the Conservative Party led by David Cameron and the Labour Party, as well as the Liberal Democrats, the junior partner in the Coalition government. The liberal aspects of libertarian paternalism and the empirical foundations of nudge policies appealed to different political groups.
In July 2010, BIT began its work with a modest budget and a small team. Initially, it operated as a "tiny sister unit" to the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit and consisted of civil servants and staff from the Better Regulation Executive office. Unlike subsequent nudge units, which rely on third-party consultants, BIT had more public involvement and government oversight as a government office staffed by government employees.
BIT had a mission to transform policy areas, promote behavioural approaches across the UK government administration (Whitehall), and achieve a tenfold return on the unit's cost. Failing to meet these goals within two years could have led to BIT's closure.
To ensure the success of the nudge unit, Halpern and the leadership team identified key factors represented by the mnemonic APPLES. These factors included administrative and political support, subject expertise, proximity to governing power, experimentation, and scholarship. However, public support and engagement were not heavily emphasized.
While Halpern suggested transparency and avoiding hidden objectives or initiatives, he also emphasized the need to keep nudge units above political reproach rather than actively engaging the public in shaping their operations and improving lives through behavioural interventions.
BIT employed the EAST framework, focusing on making interventions easy, attractive, social, and timely. The principle of ease involved simplifying choices and reducing friction, such as using default settings or streamlining processes. Attractiveness aimed to make desired choices more appealing through clear communication and marketing strategies. BIT experimented with personalized letters and other techniques to increase response rates. The social aspect considered the influence of social norms and leveraged social incentives to encourage compliance. Timeliness focused on decision points and present commitments, targeting behaviours before they became entrenched. However, BIT faced challenges related to technology, legal constraints, and political dynamics within government agencies.
BIT's transition from a government-funded office to a privately owned social purpose organization marked a significant shift in the field of behavioural insights. This privatization allowed for increased funding, independence, and the ability to attract and retain expert staff. The transformation of BIT inspired the emergence of similar behavioural science consulting firms like ideas42, which now play a crucial role in designing and operating nudge units worldwide. However, reduced government involvement raises concerns about accountability and potential conflicts of interest.
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Inside New York's Nudge Unit
New York's Nudge Unit, along with similar behavioural design teams in other cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, has gained attention for its use of subtle behavioural interventions to influence citizen behaviour in various policy areas.
Proponents argue that municipal governments, due to their proximity to the daily lives of constituents, are well-positioned to implement policy interventions that nudge citizens towards desired behaviours. The ease of implementation and relatively low monetary costs associated with nudge interventions make them an attractive tool for city leaders facing budgetary constraints.
To achieve impact at scale and foster evidence-based policymaking, New York has enlisted the expertise of ideas42, a renowned consultancy specialising in applied behavioural insights. Through techniques such as A/B testing, field observations, and comprehensive data analysis, ideas42 ensures a thorough evaluation of the effectiveness of any implemented measure.
Ideas42 advocates for a decentralised organisational structure with embedded behavioural Design Teams (BDTs) comprising behavioural experts and policymakers from multiple agencies. This approach emphasises clear project selection criteria, agency buy-in and capacity, existing data collection mechanisms, and rigorous evaluative methods involving randomisation and large sample sizes.
The scope and specific initiatives undertaken by behavioural Design Teams (BDTs) in New York City cover various policy areas. Here are some examples:
  • Public Benefits: BDTs focused on improving form submission rates for programs like SNAP recertification, resulting in significant increases in timely form submission and reduced failure to submit forms.
  • Education: BDTs partnered with the City University of New York system to increase financial aid renewal, improve placement testing outcomes, boost retention rates, and address summer melt (students admitted to college but fail to enrol).
  • Equity and Justice: Nudges were used to increase filing rates for firefighter candidates, improve recertification rates for small businesses owned by women and minorities, and enhance the feeling of safety among youth in summer job programs.
  • Government Operations: Projects involved partnerships with multiple agencies and focused on areas such as court appearance rates, misfiled service requests, payment of parking tickets and police citations.
While the successes of New York's Nudge Unit and other similar teams are often highlighted, it is essential to critically examine the approach. One major concern is the lack of external progress reviews or audits. Currently, the primary sources for reading about their projects and successes are annual reports from organisations like ideas42 and the Behavioural Insights Team. This limited external scrutiny raises questions about accountability and transparency.
Additionally, the use of behavioural interventions raises ethical concerns. Critics argue that nudging can infringe on individual autonomy and manipulate behaviour without explicit consent. The potential for unintended consequences and the risk of government overreach also warrant careful consideration.
Moreover, the effectiveness and long-term impact of nudge interventions remain subjects of ongoing evaluation and debate. While certain initiatives have yielded positive results, there are still pending outcomes and evaluations for various projects. It is crucial to assess the sustained behavioural changes, potential unintended consequences, and whether the short-term gains translate into long-term societal benefits.
The evaluation of nudge units, whether at the municipal or national level, raises significant concerns related to transparency, accountability, and ethics. It is essential to critically examine the operations of these units and their impact on individual autonomy and democratic decision-making processes. To address these concerns, clear objectives, measurable metrics for effectiveness, and enhanced transparency are needed from nudge units regarding their spending, goals, and success rates.
Promoting democratic decision-making requires independent reviews of nudge units and their effectiveness, particularly as initial grants are renewed or replaced by government funding. Sharing project outcomes and methodologies with independent researchers can address empirical and moral critiques of nudges and empower citizens to voice their support or concerns about nudge units.
While financial considerations are important, the evaluation of nudge units should not solely focus on monetary aims. Democratic accountability and adherence to social scientific standards should also be key aspects of the evaluation process. Public approval of nudges, as highlighted by Cass Sunstein's survey findings, depends on agreement with the purpose and outcomes of the nudges, as well as their alignment with individuals' values and interests.
Allowing individuals to review and critique past nudges can inform future interventions and enhance the reputation of nudge units. While obtaining consent for each nudge may not be practical, creating avenues for citizen input can help shape the values and interests pursued by these units. Public opinion and political alignment should also be taken into consideration, as partisan divisions can influence individuals' approval of nudges.
To enhance accountability, nudge units should have oversight from public officials rather than being solely driven by external nonprofit organizations. Appointing a deputy mayor or a ranked public official to oversee the nudge unit would ensure alignment with municipal interests and provide citizens with a more direct channel for expressing concerns. Clear ethical standards and government oversight are necessary to address concerns regarding individual autonomy, real-time data usage, depersonalization of data, and the targeting of specific subpopulations.
Designing transparent nudges that avoid subconscious manipulation is crucial. However, the lack of transparency surrounding success criteria poses a significant challenge. Establishing quantifiable goals and tracking progress would facilitate evaluation and allow stakeholders to assess the value of nudge units.
To address these issues, it is proposed to implement ethical standards, community review mechanisms, and transparency requirements. Written commitments to ethical standards and methodological practices are necessary to safeguard individual liberties and data. Community reviews, surveys, and forums involving nudge units, civic leaders, and citizens can provide valuable insights into public opinion and help shape nudge unit policies. Greater transparency and open data are also crucial for academic research and insights into municipal nudge units.
  • "Inside the Nudge Unit" by David Halpern
  • "Evidence for Behavioural Interventions Looks Increasingly Shaky" - The Economist
  • "Nudging by government: Progress, impact, and lessons learned" by David Halpern & Michael Sanders
  • "RCTs to Scale: Comprehensive Evidence from Two Nudge Units"
  • Investigating the Municipal Nudge Unit: How behavioural Interventions Have Quietly Emerged and Made their Mark on American Cities
  • How behavioural approaches lead to more intelligent policy design. In: Peters G, Zittoun P
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Reviewed by Aurko