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Exploring Behavioural Public Policies

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Behavioral public policies, often known as nudges, are policies developed using behavioral economics and social psychology research, aiming to shape our psychological and behavioral tendencies to benefit individuals’ long-term interests, while preserving freedom of choice (Pykett et al., 2015). Thaler and Sunstein’s research (2008) exploring behavioral economics and nudges was pioneering in shaping public and private policy and administration, this was adopted by the behavioral insight team (BIT) in the UK, introduced under David Cameron’s leadership in 2010. The seven-member department, nicknamed ‘nudge unit’ set about having a positive social input with robust and well-examined interventions with a focus on money-saving projects for the UK government. Their success and relatively low-cost approach, especially in times of financial hardship post the financial crisis arguably fast-tracked the spread of behavioral public policies. Leading to such policies being adopted worldwide by governments, international bodies, corporations, and think tanks, including the US federal government, the United Nations, Unilever and the World Bank (Sanders et al., 2018), as well as academic centers globally which facilitate experimental partnerships between said bodies. As of 2014, 51 countries had central state-led behavioral policy initiatives used to tweak environments in order to help improve “decisions about health, wealth and happiness” (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008); with behavioral sciences influencing public initiatives in a total of 135 states (Whitehead et al., 2014). This essay will be exploring the continued and ever-evolving use of behavioral public policies worldwide and the impacts these have on the role of state. While investigating whether governments adapting these subtler approaches to ‘influence behavior’ (Halpern, 2015) are changing the relationship between the state and the citizens living within. The essay will also be exploring the contrasting opinions of the use of nudges and the ethical debate behind the transparency of nudges adopted, to question whether these policies which enable governments to indirectly govern the decisions of the nation, while striving to increase welfare of the citizens the state undermines the freedom of choice (Whitehead et al., 2017).

Before one can evaluate how the relationship between states and citizens is being influenced or re-imagined’ by behavioral public policies, it is important to establish the role of the state, and how this differs worldwide and has evolved over time according to the political leanings and agendas of those in power. Globally the 1970’s saw the emergence and spread of neoliberalism governance, which led to the rise of the free-market, capitalist approach evidenced through the election of Thatcher in the UK, Ronald Reagan’s presidency and Deng Xiaping’s move towards economic liberalization in China (Whitehead et al., 2017). The subsequent increase in socio-economic problems of the neoliberalism governance leading to inequitable outcomes and a failure to ‘facilitate personal autonomy’ (Whitehead et al., 2017) led to the growth of neuroliberalism. The behavioral, psychological and neurological insights both highlighted the flaws in the workings of neoliberalism, by appreciating the role of behavioral heuristics, emotional responses and inertia in preventing the human from behaving wholly rationally, while then being able to apply these in order to continue to support the market-based neoliberal approach. Foucalt’s early work in 1960s, explored the assumptions of human behavior, leading to the conclusion that the assumptions of rationality were not an accurate approximation of human behavior. Instead, humans were to be understood as ‘rational deliberators’ whom systematically reposed to ‘variables of the environment’, deeming humans to be ‘eminently governable’ (Whitehead et al., 2017). This move towards a more state-orientated neoliberalist approach pre-empted the psychological economic blend adopted through neuroliberalism. It is not however a coherent global, one size fits all approach, and this has led to the development of different styles of neurological governing worldwide, this essay will be comparing the applications of such policies in the UK and Singapore in order to explore contrasting applications, style of governance and the resultant impacts of these.

The new assumption of individuals with ‘bounded rationality’ is a result of the evidence of humans systematically deviating from the assumed rational consumers as well as relying on heuristics to navigate choices. Not only do these deviations called ‘behavioral biases’ lead to behavioral market failures through consumers choosing sub-optimal decision but firms also tend to use these biases for their own economic benefits. (Costa et al., 2016). The role of the government to nudge therefore stems from their role to increase the welfare of their citizens - an intention that they implement through traditional coercive methods, for example using taxes and subsidies to influence consumption of merit/demerit goods; as well as laws that ensure safety such as wearing seatbelts. To implement such behavioral policies is for the governing body to be a ‘choice architect’, thereby being responsible for tweaking and organizing the environment and background where people make choices, whether their influence is recognized or not (source needed). By altering the designs of everyday surrounding, such governing bodies make it easier for individuals to make optimal and favorable decisions in a more efficient manner, while reducing the focus on physical interventions (Whitehead et al., 2012). Through states using the behavioral insights they are aiming to operate on subconscious level, using techniques often attributed to the commercial sector. It is therefore imperative that the ‘architects’ behind such policies work efficiently to attempt to counteract and not be overpowered by the corporations using the same techniques for financial gain (Pykett and Johnson, 2015). This however highlights a flaw in such interventionist methods, by taking a less coercive approach, governments efforts to nudge people in one direction and vulnerable to being nudged back due to the large and efficient advertising budgets within the commercial sector (Marteau et al., 2011). The issue therefore remains that governments attempts to empower individuals’ choice making ability, whether the training and expertise of behavioral experts is well-enough engaged with the individuals in order to re-educate and realign decisions facilitating their best interests. It is therefore imperative that the architect is competent at identifying the populations goals (Grüne-Yanoff and Hertwig, 2015). This use of nudges however raises issues concerning the autonomy of individuals being nudges - their ability to control his or her own evaluations and choices (Hausman and Welch, 2010). By the state steering decisions of the citizens to make decisions they would like to, but fail to make (on account of greater welfare), these approaches can be argued to thereby undermine the individual’s responsibility to make own decision. While not removing alternative options, the states ‘organized effort’ to change behaviors and choices (Hausman and Welch, 2010), pushes towards one option thereby reducing the autonomy of the individual through their ability to make moral and informed decisions independently, by bypassing out capacities for deliberation (Levy, 2017).

There are a range of possible behavioral public policies, and with them come varying levels of criticism due to differing transparency, consent and accountability of the governing body or agency implementing such policy (Pykett and Johnson, 2015); the more transparent and overt a behavioral public policy is implemented, the higher the level of protection of autonomy (Mills, 2013). For a number of policies introduced the nudges implemented are used to increase individual’s attentiveness to evidence, such as by increasing information readily available or sending reminder text messages; or similarly rational persuasion policies thereby do not undermine autonomy and instead protect and enhance our ability to act in our own best interests and protect liberty (Hansen, 2016). Conversely, nudges that take advantage of loss-aversion or inattention can allow individuals to be more vulnerable to manipulation or exploitation (Hausmen and Welch, 2010). The concept ‘libertarian paternalism’, coined by Thaler and Suntein, refers to the nudgers within both public and private institutions, governing bodies implementing libertarian philosophy through preserving freedom of choice while designing such policies, and also taken on a paternalist role by trying to influence and improve individuals’ choices in a way that will be in their own interests, as judged by themselves (Thaler and Sunstein, 2003; Hansen, 2016). For politically free nations the introduction of a libertarian paternalist policy (or a nudge), Thaler and Sunstein argue does not comprise or threaten liberty as while it does nudge individuals in a certain direction, there are no obstacles in preventing them from continuing to choose alternatives (Hausman, 2010). The growth of nudge policies during periods of austerity also highlights a shrinking role of governments, through implementing nudges, the use of regulation and public spending can be offset. While this is beneficial for government budgets, this is not an equitable system, benefitting the powerful while and creating a state which shy away from interventions (Curchin, 2016). Nudges resultantly can be seen as a ‘thinly veiled assault on the welfare state’ (Leggett, 2014). However, given the prevalence of fake news in the media, the role of governments is to continue to nudge to improve individual’s ability to make informed decisions (Levy, 2017), while such interventions promote self-empowerment thereby shifting responsibility in decision making onto the individuals (Mills, 2013).

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The BIT adopted and promoted use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) when possible, they have since tested and developed a two-stage protocol whereby they conduct ‘gold standard’ evaluations on possibly interventions (Heal and Grout, 2017). This regulation of interventions highlights the paternalist approach, ensuring that nudges are based on empirical evidence to prevent manipulation, enforcing the ideal of ensuring freedom within the UK. However, since 2014, the BIT has been jointly owned by the UK government, its employees and NESTA (an innovation charity). The loss of centralized governmental control however poses a threat to the transparency required to ensure the government is protecting their citizens; transparency not only ensures citizens autonomy is respected but also allows governments to openly discuss and allow citizens to exert their democratic voice (Hansen and Jesperson, 2013). The decentering of the BIT was in a move to increase innovation, in doing so they became an exporting, revenue raising firm, with £14 million revenue in 2017. As neuroliberalism becomes increasingly involved with non-governmental sources such as academics and think tanks, the political infrastructure expands, blurring the line between the state and its citizens (Whitehead et al., 2017).

An example of the UK government taking on the role of ‘choice architecture’ is the proposed ban of two-for-one deals on junk food near supermarket checkouts, in an attempt to tackle childhood obesity (Wheaton, 2018). Therefore, offering politicians a tool whereby guidance can be indirectly offered, without the public and corporation anger that tough legislation such as physical limits on high sugar/fat content food options for consumers. This supports the paternalist philosophy of nudges by steering the individuals to choose my healthy decisions to combat the obesity issue within the UK. By being able to change the environment, it makes choosing food items more beneficial to their own health easier, a decision our cognitive biases may prevent us from doing. However, the argument prevails that this soft paternalist approach adopted by the UK government fails to address the multifactorial issues with obesity (Oliver, Rayner and Lang, 2011). Similarly, the ‘Change4Life’ program, which began in January 2009, was a marketing campaign promoting healthy lifestyle across society to enable, encourage and incentivize consumers to adopt a healthier diet and increase physical activity, a nudge policy which when investigated by the House of Lords was deemed ‘evidence-based’ and ‘appropriately targeted’ (House of Lords, 2011). However, many argue that by implementing such policies the governing body are reducing the responsibility of the state in the decision making, by influencing individuals to opt for a healthier lifestyle using more low-cost methods they are also benefitting long term costs associated with obesity. This project was also criticized for the commercial partnerships such as with Boots Chemist, which were said to be for commercial gain (Rayner and Lang, 2011). Another UK example is the automatic pension enrolment scheme introduced in 2012. This was a government mandate whereby an ‘opt out’ system was put in place; workers were automatically enrolled in their firm’s pension scheme and financial contributions automatically began to be dedicated from their salaries - unless employees formally requested to be exempt. Thereby making it easier to enroll, increasing the savings rate, the scheme increased private sector pension savings from £2.7 million in 2012 to £7.7 million in 2016 (Chu, 2017). This mandate was introduced taking account of individuals inertia, by simplifying a complex process and reducing the time taken to complete the task significantly. This opt-out default is arguably one of the most cost-effective policies implemented in the UK, due to the policy being well publicized many argue this nudge was transparent and allowed for individual self-reflection.

In comparison, Singapore’s implementation of behavioral public policies differs in approach due to the contrasting low level of political freedom, ranked 74th in the world by the Economists Democracy Index (2015), experienced in an authoritarian democracy. In Singapore instead, trials were deemed unnecessary and behavioral public policies have faced no such scrutiny by the media (Whitehead et al., 2017). The first research surrounding behaviorally informed policies in Singapore began in 2010-11 by the Civil Service College, with the first publication in 2011 highlighting the importance of behavioral insights into policy making to increase efficiencies of the traditional economic theory Singapore had been adopting. Since then, there has been advising from the BIT, who have since established an office in Singapore as well as the creation of training and development courses for behavioral economics, spreading the use of nudges throughout departments. In this case, the nanny state’s widespread introduction of nudges has reduced the coercive approach of traditional policies adopted and overall authoritarian governing tactics. Thus, the impact of incentives differs significantly, as these approaches have increased the autonomy of citizens by enabling less authoritarian governance styles (Lew and Leong, 2009). As a hotspot for behavioral insight think tanks, Singapore is continuing to adopt more advanced and complex policies often using gamifying and reinforcing social norms for policy successes. Examples include a nationwide health initiative whereby a challenge to collective lose one million kilograms, by gamifying initiatives and rewarding healthy living Singapore’s government have provided healthy competition and incentives to promote policies beneficial to individual’s health. Similarly, the ‘National Steps Challenge’ offering free fitness trackers to participants encouraging exercising (Keating, 2018), with over 500,000 participants within the first two challenges, with the success of increasing 70% participants activity levels (Channel NewsAsia, 2017). In a nation of strong social norms, the Ministry of Manpower use such to increase speed in which tax payments are paid also. However, the attitudes towards protection of autonomy when introducing nudge policies in Singapore tends to not be scrutinized due to historical high levels of trust in governments. The relatively recent exploration and research into behavioral public policies acts as a more robust and theoretical backing for policies that have tended to be behaviorally targeted (Low, 2011), allowing the Singapore government to create more efficient and innovative policies, as a result of a greater understanding of human behaviors. One could argue the relationship between the state and citizens in Singapore has remained relatively similar since the election of the People’s Action Party in 1959, whereby the role of benevolent dictatorship has been adopted and practiced, the evolving use of behavioral policies only tends to reestablish this role.

The varying approaches taken by governments lead to the evolution of different styles of governance. For example, as of 2014, the Welsh government alongside the Global Action Plan and Oglivy Change were trialing the adoption of a more transparent form of behavioral policies, in the form of ‘Mindfulness, Behavior Change and Engagement in Public Policy (MBCEPP) programme’. This approach thereby aimed to empower individuals subjected to nudges by educating about behavioral insights and mindfulness in order to increase transparency and protect autonomy while implementing nudges (Pykett and Johsnon, 2015). As both mindfulness and neuroliberalism are interested in human behavior, through exploring mindfulness alongside nudges one can say the government are promoting a more conscious process of choice for citizens. This combination is in early stages but for the Welsh government and other governments considering it, through using nudges in such a proactive route they are maintaining autonomy and preventing many of the negative connotations surrounding nudges personifying in their governance (Whitehead et al., 2017). Overall, the implementation of behavioral public policies and the subsequent evolving role of the state through institutionalized behavioral policy departments or teams, varies globally. However, the global push for increased behavioral insights and application of nudges suggests an overall shift in attitudes towards governments using less coercive measures to complement existing legislation for increased welfare and often improved financial efficiency - as often, nudge policies tend to be more cost-effective than traditional policies. It is also important to note that influencing behavior has always been a desired outcome for policymakers, through incorporating these more complex means through an improved understanding of human behaviors, the state’s role could be argued to be simply evolving to incorporate psychological limitations of individuals which reduce market efficiencies. However, nudges do not provide a quick fix or substantial change to more serious problems or market failures such as climate change, or health problems and traditional coercive techniques are not going to be replaced by such nudges (Oliver, Rayner and Lang, 2011; Goodwin, 2012). Throughout this essay, the use of grey literature to support arguments addressed, is an attempt to provide greater depth and insight into public opinions of such policies.

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Exploring Behavioural Public Policies. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-behavioural-public-policies/
“Exploring Behavioural Public Policies.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-behavioural-public-policies/
Exploring Behavioural Public Policies. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-behavioural-public-policies/> [Accessed 2 Mar. 2024].
Exploring Behavioural Public Policies [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Jan 31 [cited 2024 Mar 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/exploring-behavioural-public-policies/
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