Nudging the UK: A Conversation with David Halpern

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

The UK’s Behavioral Insights Team has generated a lot of attention around the world for using psychology to guide government spending. First, as skepticism, then as acclaim.

Led by Psychologist and What Works National Advisor David Halpern, the “Nudge Unit,” as it’s popularly known, is slated to save the U.K. billions of pounds while improving the quality of government services for everyday people. They have already claimed numerous victories including getting the unemployed back into work faster, helping smokers give up tobacco, and motivating procrastinators to be more punctual in paying their taxes. On this last point, they can boast improving the payment rate by 10 percent simply by adding a sentence.

But Halpern describes their work as being more common sense than revolutionary. Simply put, he says their task is to help the government spend money on things that are effective rather than not.

Simple, but not easy. Set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 to find effective ways to enable people to make better decisions, the Behavioral Insights Team originally faced a lot of skepticism from the public and public officials.

Now, with numerous successes under their belt, the Behavioral Insights Team is here to stay. And they’ve got their sights set on all sorts of improvements: boosting education, reducing crime, increasing environmental sustainability.

Other countries are now looking to the U.K. to see how they can set up similar research networks. The United States is one them. With the news that President Obama is initiating a similar task force in the United States, we caught up with Halpern to find out more about what works and what he thinks might work in the U.S.

Max Nesterak: You were recently appointed to the What Works National Advisor. Can you describe your role and what the aim of that program is?

David Halpern: The aim is really simple which is, to put in the hands of people who commission public services evidence on what is most effective and what is particularly most cost effective. The basic idea is why don’t we spend money on things that are effective rather than not. It’s not exactly rocket science. That said we created a group of institutions which are essentially building up the pipeline of better evidence, and they collect the evidence and they put it in the hands of commissioners who buy stuff. You might be a police commissioner, who’s doing stuff on reducing crime or you might be a teacher, who’s trying to improve the performance of underperforming kids.

MN: The Nudge Unit and the What Works Program cover a lot of ground in terms of the policy they inform. Can you talk about what the Nudge Unit is up to now specifically and if there’s anything that’s off limits?

DH: We try to be pretty open about what it is we’re doing. Our top priority as you might expect has really shifted in the last year or so toward growth and getting people into employment. We’ve also recently been able to revisit the work on health and public health, and what more can be done in that area, and as always we continue to work around the green agenda. So it’s a pretty wide range.

MN: What I thought was really interesting is that you were able to get more people to pay their income taxes by telling people their neighbors had already paid.

DH: That was one of the early changes. In fact there had been a rudimentary version of it in place even before we started the unit. Essentially we were just telling people something that is true, that most people pay their taxes on time. We tried a variety of messages on that. One of the things we did was we tested if it was more effective and indeed it was. We tried variations on this method to figure out which one was most effective. It turns out actually that without using exact figures, which of course we had to check to make sure were factually true, if you just say most people pay their taxes on time it’s highly effective. In general, other people are a very powerful influence on our behaviors. We see the mistake that’s sometimes made in government campaigns which is to inadvertently to give the reverse message. So we say “such and such is really terrible, you mustn’t do it.” The underlying message is that people are doing it, which can be counterproductive.

When people saw the results about what we’re actually doing, they flipped from being skeptical to thinking, well why aren’t we doing this on everything.

MN: Can you talk specifically about the methods you’ve used to help employment centers and improve public health?

DH: I’ll take those one at a time, but actually one of the overlapping areas around both those is encouraging people to really act on their intentions. In employment, one of the key elements that we think has been working really well on our trials is instead of trying to get them to prove how many jobs they’ve looked for in the past two weeks, to instead get them to think about what they’re going to do in the next two weeks, and to prompt people to be as specific as possible. So when will you do your job search? What will you be looking for? And with who? And so on. Actually that work itself draws a lot on our work on health. If you want people to go get vaccinated, or whatever it may be, you prompt them not just in general terms but you get them to think about when they will actually go to get vaccinated. What’s the right day? What’s the right time? And so on. The more you prompt people on specifics, the more likely they are to do it.

In health it’s a whole range of things. Sometimes it’s very specific interventions, such as getting people, for example, to go and get their bowel cancer screening and the way in which those letters are written. But it can range into more structural things too. We’ve been quite active, for example, in trying to make electronic cigarettes and other forms of nicotine replacement, which are attractive to smokers, as easily available as possible. Some countries have moved to essentially ban e-cigarettes and we’ve tried to go the other direction and actually make sure there’s as light a regulatory framework as possible. If you want someone to switch to a healthier option, it’s much easier to switch to an alternative than to stop it entirely.

MN: You said that you were met with a lot of skepticism when you set up in 2010, and indeed someone leaked to Fox News here that the White House is launching something similar. Can you talk about what the initial reaction was and how the Nudge Unit overcame that skepticism?

DH: Remember it’s in the context of the elections, so you’ve got a new government coming in. So you have two different kinds of skepticism I think. One is like oh here’s this jokey idea, it’s just a gimmick. The other more subtle skepticism was what we see echoed in the U.S. is, is it some deep and dark manipulation. So you’ve got those two kinds of concerns and equally important. Inside the policy-making community in government, people thought this is just a gimmick and if we just ignore it, it will go away.

It’s about building policy around real human beings and how real people make decisions as opposed to what an economic textbook teaches you.

One of the reasons we’ve always been very very empirical is to actually systematically trial these things. Well, do they work or do they not? And in terms of the last concern, when people see the results, certainly civil servants and others, when you see the numbers then it’s like of course we should do this. The marginal cost of changing a line in a letter is nothing, and it increases the effectiveness by 10 percent, so it saves everyone a lot of time and money including taxpayers. That’s sort of a no brainer. That’s true also in the public domain and media commentators. When people saw the actual results about what we’re actually doing, people generally flipped from being skeptical to thinking, well why aren’t we doing this on everything.

MN: What do you think the Nudge Unit’s biggest success has been?

DH: It depends on your criteria. In terms of very easy to demonstrate in cash terms, a lot of the work about taxes has been very very powerful. So far it has actually reduced complaints from the public, interestingly, which is an important piece, and it has delivered hundred of millions of revenue. That’s pretty straightforward. For me, one of the most pleasing things is actually the employment work. In some ways it’s really remarkable. We’re not giving people degrees and new qualifications, we’re not changing the labor market, but it’s been incredibly effective to get people back into work faster. That’s one of the things that we’re very proud of.

MN: Having set this up and learned from you experiences, what do you think you would recommend for the United States as it tries to set up a similar Nudge Group?

DH: Well the U.S. needs to find its own way in these kinds of things, but we think it’s important [and] we try to be very open about the things we do. It’s important the public are aware of what we’re doing, that we’re transparent. We also haven’t jumped into the most controversial issues. We’ve gone for some really matter of fact things, which the public care about a lot. We’re about making life better and easier for citizens. A lot of it is tied to the What Works agenda, which isn’t just about behavioral issues, it’s in general, how can you make services easier for citizens to use and find things that are more effective rather than less. So you stick to that agenda and stay away from the more controversial and political areas.

For years people regarded this as a quite edgy, quirky novelty, where we had to work quite hard to persuade government departments to think about the world in this different way. Now in the U.K. we’re in a very different position. It’s about building policy around real human beings and how real people make decisions as opposed to what an economic textbook teaches you. So our issue nowadays is actually the level of demand we get from both inside the U.K. and increasingly from around the world. So that’s a testament to the effectiveness of it. As it gets picked up elsewhere, it’s also about staying close to what the public thinks. This is an agenda that rests on what the public thinks of us, giving us permission to find more effective ways of helping people quit smoking, or making sure consumer markets are working well, or making sure that everybody pays their fair share of taxes, or whatever it will be. The legitimacy of what we do and when we do trials, it’s not just does it work by the sheer numbers, but also how the public feel about it.