Government data in the public domain – intrinsically good, right?

data.gov.uk homepage

Data.gov.uk explains ‘Public Data‘ as ‘the objective, factual, non-personal data on which public services run and are assessed, and on which policy decisions are based, or which is collected or generated in the course of public service delivery.’

The release of ‘public data’ will be regarded as one of the most significant government policy programmes of this century because of its economic, political and social disruption. Although it is still in its infancy, the UK’s ‘Public Data’ initiative, which was started by the Labour government, has survived the transition to the Coalition. The Coalition have consciously nurtured ‘Public Data’; if anything the Government has turned things up a notch.

Try to choke it in its sleep or hang it in full-view, in truth there would be no way that any government could get away with killing off ‘Public Data’ once it has taken root. The release of data into the public domain by governments is, after all, the latest in a long term trend toward more openness and transparency in public administration. It is one perfectly in tune with and enabled by the digital age.

But while it might intrinsically feel like one of the most significant things to happen to UK democracy, hang on. How do we know? Where’s the proof? Can we say with confidence that the release of data held by government is good? Continue reading “Government data in the public domain – intrinsically good, right?”

Nudge nudge, think think – competing strategies for changing civic behaviour

Governments can no longer rely on the traditional behaviour change tools of regulatory and economic instruments to shape civic actions. But should they turn to choice architecture or deliberative participation as an alternative? Both are very in vogue, but can real shifts be achieved by appealing to perceptions of cost-benefit or by changing values?

In their fantastic discussion paper Nudge nudge, think think, Peter John, Graham Smith and Gerry Stoker walk us through the emergence of ‘Nudging’ and of ‘Deliberation’ as competing strategies available to policy makers seeking to change the behaviour of citizens. The authors discuss the strengths and weaknesses of both strategies and provide a handy comparative analysis, which is neatly summarised in this table:

Nudge Think
View of preferences Fixed Malleable

 

View of subjects Cognitive misers, users of shortcuts, prone to flawed sometimes befuddled thinking Reasonable, knowledge hungry and capable of collective reflection

 

Costs to the individual Low but repeated High but only intermittently

 

Unit of analysis Individual-focussed Group-focussed

 

Change process Cost-benefit led shift in choice environment Value led outline of new shared policy platform

 

Civic conception Increasing the attractiveness of positive-sum action

 

Addressing the general interest
Role of the state Customise messages, expert and teacher Create new institutional spaces to support citizen-led investigation, respond to citizens

 

In the coda, the authors explore how the two strategies can learn from each other and be brought together in a coherent manner. Although they accept that coherence is very difficult in practice because both strategies hold different understandings of human behaviour and theories of change, they both share a fundamental driving principle:

Governments accept they cannot rely on issuing commands or creating incentives: they must deal directly and engage with the citizen, whose participation helps to co-produce public outcomes.

Ultimately, as the authors conclude, to be a successful practitioner of nudge it you need to understand what makes deliberation work and to be an effective practitioner of think you need to understand the dynamics of nudge.

The paper discusses at length the design of Nudging and Deliberative processes, but does not spend enough time – to my mind – considering how they are communicated to the public, even though both strategies are highly reliant on effective marketing of intriguingly differing styles.

Room for improvement aside, this is a very accessible article containing learning and challenges for functions across government.

Another paper from the same ESRC-funded research programme that is also worth a read is Can the internet overcome the logic of collective action? which takes an experimental approach to investigating the impact of social pressure on political participation. This paper tests the hypothesis that social information provided by the internet makes it possible in large groups to exert social pressure that was previously only considered viable for smaller groups.

Stuff what I has been reading… 27/07 – 02/08

Push too hard for revenue in the short term, they might drive away users, undermining a network. Leave it too late to monetise and the business could collapse.

Social media – is it about money or people?

[From The Economist]

There are no self-evident connections between the key objectives of counter-terrorism, development, democracy/ state-building and counter-insurgency. Counter-insurgency is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for state-building.

Rory Stewart knows Afghanistan, and this essay is a expert analysis of the problems with the Afghan ‘mission’; it is a pity that his solution to the problem is not as clear as his diagnosis of the problem.

[From the London Review of Books]

Of all the economic bubbles that have been pricked, few have burst more spectacularly than the reputation of economics itself.

A spirited but balanced defence of the dismal science.

[From The Economist]