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How Far to Nudge?

Assessing Behavioural Public Policy

Peter John

This book addresses the wave of innovation and reforms that has been called the nudge or behavioural public policy agenda, which has emerged in many countries since the mid-2000s. Nudge involves developing behavioural insights to solve complex policy problems, such as unemployment, obesity and the environment, as well as improving the delivery of policies by reforming standard operating procedures. It reviews the changes that have taken place, in particular the greater use of randomised evaluations, and discusses how far nudge can be used more generally in the policy process. The book argues that nudge has a radical future if it develops a more bottom up approach involving greater feedback and more engagement with citizens.
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Chapter 6: Is nudge all it’s cracked up to be? Limitations and criticisms

Assessing Behavioural Public Policy

Peter John


In assessing how far to nudge, it is important to acknowledge possible criticisms of this kind of intervention, in particular of the power and range of its effects. As has been pointed out in the earlier chapters, there is a considerable momentum behind the agenda of behaviour change, and a large number of positive findings have been produced from evaluations and academic studies, which give an impression that everything nudge-like works and that public services are being transformed as a result. To move forward, is it simply a case of expanding the remit of behavioural insights to include more agencies and more contexts, harvesting the gains, and rolling out the reformed procedures and policies? Naturally, no policy and research agenda is going to be transformative in quite such a way, no matter what benefits there are. Thus, this chapter is the place for talking more cautiously about the agenda of nudge, not to knock it down, but to understand some of its limitations and come to a more balanced assessment of how far to nudge. To this end, some of the conventional criticisms of nudge are reviewed, and the chapter also assesses the more damning attacks that have been mounted.

The first criticism of nudge is that the range of nudges is limited because they tend to focus on a limited subset of activities for which messages can be delivered. Nudges work well for messages, texts, and other forms of communication, which can be...

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