Brief book review – Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference

David Halpern (with a foreword by Richard Thaler), 2019, Penguin, London, 413 pages

In Inside the Nudge Unit, Dr David Halpern (Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team) gives a detailed insight into the development and performance of the UK Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). The BIT, also known as the Nudge Unit, was established under the Cameron Government in the UK in 2010. It explores public policy interventions by drawing on ideas from the behavioural science literature.

The BIT is a remarkable success story: starting with little staff, it is now an organisation of around 150 employees, with offices in London, Manchester, New York, Singapore, Sydney and Wellington. More importantly, it has helped to mainstream insights from the behavioural sciences by actively testing and trialling which ideas from academia work in policy and regulatory practice, how, where and why. Those familiar with this blog have seen an extensive discussion of the work of the BIT and the broader turn to behavioural insights in regulatory governance.

Dr Halpern’s book is of interested to those with a limited understanding of the role behavioural insights can play in improved policy and regulation, as well as those who have a good understanding of it. It gives a very brief recap of the basics of ‘nudging’ and then moves straight into how and why the BIT was developed, the early day challenges it faced, and how it was able to achieve early day successes.

The book gives a candid insight into the workings of the BIT and is a valuable source of information for decisionmakers and public servants who are involved in or wish to establish a behavioural insights team in their organisation. It discusses the type of staff such a team needs, the best approach to carrying out random control trials, the areas where most initial success is to be expected, and so on. It also gives a candid insight into the challenges the BIT has faced in its early days, which provide lessons of equal value as those resulting from the success stories.

What I particularly enjoyed about the book is that it considers the use of behavioural insights in public policy as fitting both a conservative and liberal policy agenda. To Dr Halpern, nudging is not about committing to a specific policy paradigm, but about ‘introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour into policymaking’ (p.2). This (almost) political-value-free discussion of the use of behavioural sciences is a welcome contribution to the highly polemicised literature on ‘nudging’.

Another aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed is that it considers the use of randomised control trials (RCTs) by BIT as fitting a broader trend of ‘what works’ in public policy and regulatory governance. As Dr Halpern explains, we need ‘the use of better evidence in government [about what interventions work and which do not], and push the shift to more widespread, robust and faster evaluations of government policy and day-to-day professional practice’ (pp.289-290). Not only ‘nudges’ need to be experimented with before becoming formal public policy, but any policy and regulatory intervention should be subject to the cycle of ‘experiment, evaluate and iterate’ (p.292).

Disclaimer

In these brief book reviews, I discuss classic and contemporary books that make up the canon of regulatory scholarship. I focus on their central guiding idea or core notions and aim to keep the reviews to around 500 words. Unfortunately, this implies I must sacrifice a considerable amount of detail from the books reviewed.

Here I also must disclaim that David gave me a free copy of his book when he visited New Zealand in July this year. Perhaps his nudge when giving me the book (explaining it is the first copy of the book in Australasia) has biased me towards writing a particular type of review. But that’s up to you, reader, to decide.

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