Nudges and the Big Society?

The Government was this week reported as setting up a more powerful Nudge Team which builds on the work of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team. This is of course broadly welcome. However the danger to avoid is seeing the behavioural economics of Nudges as the magic bullet to solve all the intractable behavioural challenges that society faces.

Mark Earls, the author of the book Herd, has written that Nudging is not enough on its own. He argues that, “the big weakness of most of these BE-inspired models fall far short of aspirational accuracy because they miss the important fact that all human life is lived in company (real or imagined) of others – as Freud observed, we can never escape the Other”.

On this blog, Professor Jeff French and Charlie Mansell have also further explained that Nudging needs to be seen in the context of a wider range of interventions that are available.

The additional point I would make at this stage, is that a Nudge approach where, as Charlie states, “we are spared the cognitive effort of thinking too hard about the behaviour in question”, may actually go against the levels of increased thoughtful commitment required from communities to build the Big Society; whilst recognising, as we do, that those communities may respond to the Big Society in different ways due to a different mix of values. In other words, is one part of the Cabinet Office joining up government enough with another part of the Department over programmes around Nudges and the Big Society to ensure they complement each other rather than conflict?

Something that may perhaps link both Nudges and the Big Society is a greater understanding of the deeper relationships within social networks that can require both personal commitment, but can also support informal unthinking enforcement of social norms. Paul Ormerod’s recent RSA essay on the types of social network and the RSA’s recently published research into Connected Communities may be a way forward in defining the various types of social network for the further research and pilot projects that are likely to be required in this field over the next few years.

Jonathan Upton is Chairman of The Campaign Company.

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One Response to “Nudges and the Big Society?”

  1. The interplay between Social Networks and Values? « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] have written a number of times (1. Weak ties; 2. Nudges; 3. Public Health) about the importance of social networks for building social capital and […]

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