Skip to content

Sugar Tax and the response to the Casey report into policing

  • Blog
  • 6th Apr 2023

Two interesting reports were released in the last weeks.  The Behavioural Insights Team released its manifesto for applying behavioural science and Louise Casey revealed her report into the state of policing in London (but we all know it is a national wake up call for every police service).

The two, when you read between the lines, are inter-related.  The first thing to note is that the Behavioural Insights Team is trying to work out how it influences not laboratory-based scenarios but rather complex adaptive systems. These are, states Michael Hallsworth from the most recent Nudge Unit podcast, “made up of countless different actors making decisions, reacting to what others are doing and adjusting to the environment”.  Policing is a complex adaptive system and when things go wrong, like in other complex systems, there are significant consequences.

Hallsworth talks through the risk of flooding in New York, and rather than building a wall, he suggests rejuvenating oyster beds which reduce the impact of flooding.  Walls need rebuilding but oyster beds rejuvenate and build themselves – they are adaptive.  Enduring results need solutions to be adaptive and integrated as part of the system whereas some simple but blunt interventions can have adverse consequences on the wider system.

So as policing reacts to the Casey review it is tempting to intervene in the complex system of policing without looking at all the consequences.  This has happened before.  The public sector has been quick to embrace unconscious bias training.  It is logical but when you look at the evidence – not only is it likely to be ineffective, but it can also backfire as people negatively respond to the training.  Another example could be the feeling that the police cannot be trusted to govern their own misconduct procedures – so independent legally qualified chairs are introduced. In this example, just published research from the Cambridge Journal of Evidence Based Policing suggests that police chiefs not only dismissed more staff, but their rate of disproportionality  was potentially lower.  Simple and reactionary responses to issues can have unpredicted effects.

The BIT manifesto argues that we can join behavioural science with insights from how complex systems operate to tackle big issues more effectively.  Small changes can also have good positive impacts in unanticipated ways. David Halpern, CEO of BIT highlights how sugar tax not only decreases sugary drinks bought, it also influences manufacturers to produce lower sugar drinks – what he terms as a ‘double nudge’.  In this case, even people who don’t care about the price of sugary drinks are still drinking less sugar.

How do we respond to Casey then through the lens of a complex adaptive system?  What is the sugar tax equivalent for changing police culture?  What intervention not only tackles bad standards but also positively re-enforces itself, to counter the doom loop of poor standards leading to weak recruitment?  David Halpern, CEO of BIT states that often the key nudges are not Governments but people to each other.  And this perhaps then is the answer.  Not just restructuring, or top-own policies, instead a movement in policing that comes from within all ranks. The Met has driven the recruitment of a thousand HeForShe allies within its own ranks.  Staff at all levels facing down misogyny.   The first nudge makes misogyny socially unacceptable, the double nudge then, like the manufacturer reducing sugar levels, means that more women are attracted to work in a more inclusive culture.  A doom loop is replaced by a virtuous circle.  Leaders then empower change agents in all ranks and embrace the core foundation of behavioural science, social acceptability.  This is why Chatman argues that socialisation has a greater effect on culture than recruitment.   The Met and other forces who embrace this concept are onto something.

The value of social pressure can operate for good in policing, but it is a phenomenon that drives positive change everywhere.  Ask yourself the question, has the police in the last few years got worse or are the community standing up more effectively to what is clearly unacceptable?  I would argue the latter.  In Pinkers  Better Angels of Our Nature he seeks to answer the paradox of why we think the world is more violent when it is not. He argues that societal expectations change prior to actual change taking place – we feel despair, but then society improves until a new level of expectation arises, and again organisations are one behind.  I have written about this before in relation to how the police attitude to child sexual exploitation changed and I think it is equally relevant to police culture. We must not be tone deaf here – police officers have committed heinous offences over the last few years. But now wider parts of policing culture are being highlighted, and we are late to catch up. But we will because we must, and that is a good sign policing can improve.

In West Mercia Police, where I work, we are replicating the push for HeForShe allies.  We are working through how teams lead cultural change from the bottom up.  We also have incidents that will rock trust in policing – but like all police forces we must face the challenge head on. By empowering teams to stand up and define what is acceptable we are hoping to create a positive impact that can adapt to all the new challenges that the complex system of policing will bring over the coming years.