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A sign post not a satnav

October 11, 2011 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Public policy, The RSA 

Around a year ago the RSA 2020 Public Services Commission published its final report. This morning what is now the RSA 2020 Public Services Hub published an update, exploring the Government’s reform programme looked at through the prism of the Commission’s recommendations.   

My task was to reflect on the degree to which the Commission’s injunction that services be judged by their ‘social productivity’ has been observed. The answer, as those who read this blog regularly will guess, was ‘not very much at all’.

Over the long term socially productive public services help people meet their own needs, collectively and individually. The RSA bases this argument on our analysis of the widening ‘social aspiration gap’ between society’s needs and expectations and what the state can provide if citizens continue to think and act as we do right now. The goal of social productivity is facilitated by two ways of thinking about services.

First, service outcomes should be seen as co-productions, reflecting the combined efforts of state and civil society to meet shared goals, such as children having a stretching and enjoyable education, people living healthy lives and communities being cohesive and safe. Second, the key determinant of the success of a service lies in the clarity and quality of the relationship between service commissioner/provider and citizen/service user.

But despite the comprehensive and radical scale of Coalition reform neither of these ideas is prominent. Michael Gove will point to free schools. But not only are these marginal to the system as a whole, but it is far from clear whether – once they have been established – the relationship between school, pupil and parent will be any different (indeed, overall, it looks as though Academies are less responsive to parents and communities than their predecessor local authority schools – something which is storing up big trouble in the medium term). Meanwhile the Department for Education has shown no interest at all in encouraging or supporting new, more collaborative relationships between schools, parents and communities (by the way, drawn from our Citizen Power Peterborough project, here is an example of what the RSA is doing on this topic).

Similarly, despite some complex and rather confusing new accountability mechanism bolted onto Andrew Lansley’s health plan by the Liberal Democrats, the focus of NHS reform is on structure and  governance not relationships between the health service and communities (of place or of interest) or between clinicians and patients. The Government may be seeking to change the model of service delivery but service delivery it will remain. Increasing contestability and giving more power to GPs may make marginal improvements to NHS productivity (although there is no evidence that they will), but it is inconceivable that growing health and social care needs can be met without a more co-productive model of responsibility and provision.

A final example of the apparent incuriosity of the Government towards the relational nexus of services lies in higher education. Here the rhetoric of markets has left the sector hopelessly confused as to whether students should be seen as learners (which implies deference to the institution and academics) or consumers (which implies the student is in charge).

The great irony in all this is that many of the criticisms I have outlined can be seen to reflect a Big Society approach. Notwithstanding the massive pressure of spending cuts, a fusion of Big Society thinking and (for want of a better term) ‘post bureaucratic’ public service reform could have created a rich context for innovation. But as we all know, Whitehall as a whole views the Big Society project with thinly veiled contempt (judging by his conference speech, even the Prime Minister may now be giving up on his pet project).

Anyway, this is all by way of an introduction to a fascinating conversation I had after this morning’s event. A senior advisor in the Cabinet Office approached me to say that he broadly agreed with my emphasis on reforming the relationship at the heart of public services. ‘But’ he went on ‘just because Whitehall isn’t forcing councils, officials and agencies to think and work in this way doesn’t mean there isn’t the space for them to choose to’.

In a way this is fair. It is certainly easier to talk to local government about citizen engagement and co-productive than Whitehall.  But the idea that local agencies will spontaneously take on the challenge of reframing services and recasting the relationship between professionals and the public is surely a triumph of hope over expectation. 

On the one hand, even if Whitehall has reduced some of the burden of central targets, it still places powerful constraints and incentives on public sector agencies and institutions. If citizen engagement is not among the incentivised behaviours it is likely to be pushed aside by those which are. On the other hand, just because the centre doesn’t mandate an action doesn’t mean it can’t provide leadership through – to list just four mechanisms –  exhortation, strategic guidance, dissemination of good practice or lauding the achievements of pioneers . When, I wonder, was the last time Michael Gove invited head teachers to London to praise their efforts in connecting with the community?

But while I think the advisor’s line of defence was a touch disingenuous, it does open up an interesting question (in fact, one that the same advisor had raised in a different context in the earlier group discussion): how does the centre promote a direction of policy without imposition? Number Ten is very keen on nudging as a method of individual behaviour change but what about organisational nudging? 

I don’t have any sources to hand, but this must be an issue which has been explored by academics or consultants in the context of various organisations. Any thoughts?


Steer way to heaven

June 15, 2010 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Social brain, The RSA 

Today the RSA publishes a new report: ‘Steer, mastering our behaviour through instinct, environment and reason’. It is a product of our Social Brain project and was authored by Matt Grist, who has just this week left to start a new job with Demos.

There are four things I like about the report:

1. It draws on evidence about what drives our behaviour but is measured and balanced, and avoids the temptation to reduce human behaviour to neurological processes. There is a study which shows researchers have only to use the word neuroscience for people to be more likely to believe in any results they are told. Pop neuroscience is everywhere, including a piece in today’s Times saying that Robert Green’s mishap was down to the fact that our brains perceive our hands to be nearly twice the size they really are. Steer avoids the ‘voodoo correlations’ of some applied neuroscience.  

2. The core thesis is intellectually convincing and politically progressive. Instead of the benign paternalism of ‘Nudge’, it advocates giving people simple guides which make them better able to shape their behaviour. It recognises that much behaviour is automatic, not conscious, but it gives us the tools to consciously change our circumstances.

3. Although it is a small study, the research involved testing its ideas with a group of subjects. Finding out which ‘rules’ they found most useful immediately, and when asked a few weeks later, shows there is real potential in this approach (which we will be exploring in the next stage of the project).

4. It is short and well-written (always a relief when it comes to think tank reports).

Sadly, there is little sign of the work being picked up by the media – which given all the hype surrounding ‘Nudge’ is a pity. But who knows – maybe it’s a slow burner and I hope my wonderful (and, judging by yesterday’s discussion, deeply intellectual) blog readers will have a look and share it around.


Nudge fever

July 22, 2008 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Public policy, Social brain 

Following Richard Thaler’s speech here last week about his book Nudge I have had several calls from journalists. As is often the case with policy fads there is now something of a backlash as commentators realise that ‘nudging’ is really no more than a set of clever techniques and not quite the new paradigm implied in some quarters.

The most widely touted example of a nudge proposal was George Osborne’s advocacy of a recycling reward scheme modelled on Recycle Bank a highly successful US initiative.

Recycle Bank is an impressive scheme overseen by an NGO which works in partnership with local councils to pick up recyclable rubbish and then hand out reward vouchers redeemable in local stores to those who recycle. From what I can ascertain the scheme starts from the assumption that there is no existing municipal scheme so that any recycling that takes place is a direct consequence of the scheme.

This is important because were there to be any existing scheme – as there is in the vast majority of UK local authorities – then this example of ‘nudge’ comes up against a classic problem with policy based on financial incentives; the dead weight. Osborne asserts that the policy is redistributive because:

While the poorest households were previously the least likely to recycle, as soon as they start receiving a financial incentive for recycling, they typically become amongst the most likely households to recycle’

This may be true once the policy is in place but at the point of implementation the scheme would involve rewarding those who are already recycling.

If, as Osborne tells us, the current recyclers tend to be better off the first effect of implementing the scheme is to give middle class families a reward for something they were already doing for free. The dead weight problem doesn’t necessarily kill a policy. The Government’s Educational Maintenance Allowance to disadvantaged 16-18 year old who stay on at school has been seen as a success despite a huge dead weight cost.

Recycle Bank has the feel of a neighbourhood NGO initiative (albeit one that is taking place in hundreds of places), so arguably it’s not the kind of scheme people might be inclined to fiddle. But given how many people are hostile to any type of government, a local authority scheme would have to address another classic policy conundrum.

How do you get the incentive right; just big enough to change behaviour but not so big to encourage cheating (people nicking each other’s recycling or putting bricks at the bottom of their bin). If this sounds cynical, remember the ill-fated Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs) which foundered when rogue training companies were set up to farm people’s ILAs splitting the proceeds between the bogus trainers and bogus trainees.

I remain a fan of nudging but policy making is complex and policies that look clever on paper and work with college students can founder when they are taken up by citizens and those on the lookout for a quick buck.

In an echo of the strange world of quantum mechanics the moment a policy is implemented it changes the context for which the policy was devised and is therefore bound to produce unexpected and sometimes perverse outcomes.

To end with another issue with incentives; if everyone takes up the scheme they quickly come to see the ‘reward’ as an entitlement. And if they then are refused the reward because they fail to recycle they see this as a punishment. In other words, if the policy of rewarding is too successful is comes to feel like the policy of fining it was supposed to replace!

It is this complexity plus the importance of underpinning schemes like these with a high level of public buy-in that leads me to conclude that such ideas work much better at the local level. That’s why the Conservatives are arguing for their policy to be a council initiative. However English Council areas are so big that to many residents the town hall is as distant and oppressive as Whitehall.

Changing behaviour is hard. Nudging is a useful technique but it doesn’t abolish the classic dilemmas of policy making.


Behavioural economics

July 14, 2008 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Credit crunch, Public policy, Social brain 

Behavioural economics is all the rage. Like all fashions it is important to distinguish innovation and quality from fad and silliness. The principle of ‘nudging’ is not at issue; the devil is in the detail.

The always provocative Jamie Whyte has a pop this morning at Harriet Harman’s proposed Equality Bill. Whyte’s argument is that the Bill seeks to correct a non-existent market failure. If women are paid less than men it is because women have different priorities. Similarly Whyte claims that to complain that disabled people have lower rates of employment is to reveal a ‘Marxist’ view of justice which ‘requires simple sameness of outcomes and proportionality be damned’.

Whyte is clever but a tad disingenuous. He encourages readers to believe that Harman’s Bill is going to force employers to pay women more or to employ disabled people. But the Bill is much less prescriptive. Its main tool for bringing about change is to make it easier to know how much employers pay all their staff, so that if there is clear evidence of discrimination existing legislation can be used to tackle it. The other headline proposal is that if candidates for a job are otherwise equal in all regards, employers can adopt a policy favouring an under-represented group. Given the evidence that in many workplaces diversity is an advantage (for example, helping firms understand and relate better to a diverse client base) this seems like a modest proposal that could encourage firms to do the right thing and at the same time assist social mobility by making it easier for groups lower down to climb the ladder. Over the last year Scott Page talking about employment and Brooke Harrington talking about investment have both shown RSA audiences how diversity can be beneficial

Also today George Osborne is in the Guardian singing the praises of behavioural economist Richard Thaler (who is here on Thursday). The media are fascinated by the Conservatives’ interest in Thaler’s argument; which is that small clever messages and incentives can have a significant effect on human behaviour. Osborne claims that the Conservatives interest in behavioural economics shows they are ‘the Party of ideas in British politics’.

So it is an irony that Harman’s Bill can easily be portrayed as being made up of just the kind of small nudges Thaler advocates. Rather than positive discrimination which is heavy handed and controversial Harman argues for positive action which is subtle and – properly explained – publicly acceptable. Rather than crude pay levelling Harman advocates using information transparency as away of encouraging employers to be more self-aware and accountable.

Some commentators suggest ‘nudging’ as an alternative to legislation but of the three nudges Osborne advocates this morning in the Guardian two require new national regulation and one new local rules. Nudging is not a brand new technique that avoids the problems of all the other techniques, such as perverse outcomes, bad implementation or cheating. It is simply – as Thaler and Sunstein make clear in their book – an alternative frame for policy making involving a more subtle evidence-based way of thinking about human behaviour, rather than relying on the mythical figure of the entirely rational, self interested, perfectly informed subject of economic theory (and of the world of Jamie Whyte).

The issue is not ‘to nudge or not to nudge’ it is how to nudge well. When the Government tries to nudge it is lambasted. When the Conservatives suggest something similar they are hailed as brilliant. This may be unfair but so is life. Successful nudging can rely on credibility and legitimacy. It may not be that the Conservatives have better ideas just that they are cleverly exploiting being in Opposition. While the public wouldn’t share a park bench with Gordon Brown they seem relaxed at the idea of a nudge from David Cameron.