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Don't blunt 'nudging' as an effective tool for change

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Are public sector innovators on the ropes? Looking at the press over the last six months you could be forgiven for thinking so.

Commentators have pounced with barely concealed glee on the apparent failure of new ideas for delivering public services - from Labour politicians monstering booksharing websites to journalists swarming around the apparent collapse of Suffolk’s controversial new strategic direction.

The latest idea to have official cold water poured all over it is behaviour change – or ‘nudging’. Baroness Neuberger’s science and technology committee proclaimed it was not enough to nudge: you also need regulation and fiscal measures.

That statement is true but uncontroversial. With the possible exception of Richard Thaler, almost nobody seriously argues that behavioural economics alone is the cure for all ills. That doesn’t mean the idea is useless.

Nudging is one innovation that local government cannot ignore

In fact, recent NLGN research (Changing behaviours: opening a new conversation with the citizen) has highlighted how some councils are already starting to use nudging techniques to reform services and save money. We showed how Coventry was using behavioural insights to persuade families to take on personalized budgets for SEN school transport, how Sutton used social marketing to increase levels of cycling and how Harrow has persuaded its tenants to take on more responsibility for maintaining their homes.

The issue for the nudge agenda is not that it doesn’t work, but that it is a blunt tool when applied nationally. You need local intelligence and insight to make these tools work most effectively, and that means that councils have to grasp the new tools of behavioural economics.

Any service with significant customer interaction can theoretically be improved by shifting behaviour. Local authorities could offer council tax discounts to citizens who clean their own streets, or who drag their bins to the end of the road, saving time on collection. They can investigate new ways to catalyse volunteering among the newly retired by appealing to the post-materialist values of many of the baby boom generation.

This agenda requires experimentation, trial and error and knowledge sharing so we can see what works in practice. There is not a pre-packed list of tried and tested solutions to choose from. But in a world where a suspicious public is losing faith in institutions, politicians simply do not have the legitimacy to bellow ‘eat less fat’ through a megaphone, or indeed to tax fatty foods into oblivion.

Nudging is one innovation that local government cannot ignore. 

Simon Parker, director, New Local Government Network (NLGN)

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