It’s been just over 2 years since the UK’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT), or ‘nudge unit’ was set up. Inspired by the growing field of behavioural economics, including the work of Danny Kahneman, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (who has worked with the team from its inception), the team was given a remit to help find new ways of encouraging, supporting and enabling people to make better choices for themselves.
Practising what we preach (re: defaults), BIT was set up with a 2 year ‘sunset clause’, which meant that the Government would have to make an active choice to keep the Team going, otherwise it would be shut down. I’m pleased to say that this summer the PM and Cabinet Secretary decided to keep the unit, and indeed expand its work. But what’s really pleasing is what lies behind this: behavioural insights have proven themselves able to save money, improve outcomes, and make services easier for citizens to use.
When it was established, the unit was set three objectives. These were to:
- Have a major impact on at least two major areas of policy
- Spread knowledge and understanding of behavioural approaches across Whitehall
- Achieve at least a 10-fold rate of return on the cost of the unit Great progress has been made on (1), particularly around tax, fraud and error. HMRC stands out as the department that has perhaps been most effective at adopting behavioural approaches in its work. Other departments to have embraced the approach include DECC, the Department of Health, the Courts Service, and BIS.
We’ve also done a lot to spread the knowledge of the approach (2), though there is still much to do. The team has given more than 100 seminars with civil servants over the past two years, though we still need to do more to reach outside of Whitehall. We hope this blog will help too.
Most successful of all has been performance against (3) – the rate of return on the unit – not least because of the team’s extensive use of Randomised Control Trials (RCTs). Our current estimate is that we have identified effects that will lead to savings and gains of around £300m by the end of the Parliament, with many more in train. If we had to identify one factor that has changed hearts and minds in Whitehall in these last two years – and they have surely changed – it has been the results of these RCTs. Government and policy is full of claims, fashions, and counter-claims. This makes it easy, and perhaps right, for seasoned civil servants and commentators to dismiss the latest novel idea.
So let us start this blog by thanking the many Whitehall colleagues, service providers and local authorities who have worked with us to conduct these trials. Thank you – and we look forward to working with you all in the coming years as well. We hope that you will find this blog an easy and interesting way to learn what what’s going on; to keep up to date on new research and results; and that it can be a place to share ideas and the issues that we are all wrestling with.
With best wishes
David Halpern & and the BIT team