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.

Who is accountable? Giving power away in a centralised political culture

We are all localists now.

So starts a new research report by IPPR exploring the political consensus around decentralisation and the barriers to achieving it in practice – Who’s accountable? The challenge of giving power away in a centralised political culture.

The researchers asked a representative sample who they regarded as accountable for the performance of public services. Across a range of services – health and policing, for example – no matter who is charge, the public placed responsibility firmly at the feet of government. However, in other cases – such as education and transport – accountability is more diffuse. Why?

The report considers a number of factors, but of particular importance seems to be good communication. When power is devolved, the lines of accountability must be made clear. The examples of devolution in Scotland and public transport make for interesting case studies in this respect.

However, in the report the authors write:

… ministers may be more inclined to give up powers where lines of accountability are clear and when they can be reassured that once they’ve let go, the public, the media and the oppoistion will accedpt that responsibility rests at the local level.

I do think the authors should have spent longer considering the important influence of party politics and media representation, alongside that of public attitudes and perceptions, in order to get the full picture.

Otherwise, it is an interesting and well set out piece of original research.

Getting Together with Transport for London

I quite like Transport for London’s ‘Together for London‘ network site.

The idea instinctively appeals to me. I used to live in London and, when I moved there, I was surprised by the lack the manners on public transport and the reticence of passengers and staff to intervene. Now, I’m moving there again and I’m not looking forward to the commuting; any campaign to improve the experience of using London’s transport system would be warmly welcomed.

First off it’s a OK looking site, with a decent, if conventional architecture. There are some general styling/display issues that will get sorted in time, no doubt. I’ve got a bigger problem with the avatars. I wonder if people aren’t just a bit tired of creating avatars. I can see what they are trying to do, and I like the idea of the avatars and campaigns being brought out of the site and on to the bus, train or bike lane, but the quality is too low and I don’t think there will be many people rushing out to wear their avatar t-shirt. ‘Naf’ is the word that comes to mind when I see the avatars and the design concept – looks a bit like kids were forced to design the site for a school competition.

I think I will use this site. I intend to follow an contribute to some discussions and campaigns, I may even start my own. But I will be on the watch for this descending into an all-out grieving-post. Two things will stop that happening, responsibility for both falls to TfL.
Continue reading “Getting Together with Transport for London”

Spending less, yet spending more

Ofcom has released its 2008 Communications Market Review.

Haven’t had the chance to plough through it yet, but the main headline seems to be that Brits are spending more time communicating, yet spending less money to do so.

These reports are fantastic data sources, so it’s worth spending some time and bandwidth downloading it.

Interestingly Ofcom are running a trial of an ‘experimental, interactive version’ of the report’s key points. In essence, it’s a ‘social text’ allowing users to place comments against each point in the document (like the one that DIUS are running).

I think it’s a good idea but they seem a little too cautious about the whole thing.

Have a look at