Governments the world over seek to influence citizen choices and
encourage us to recycle, to stop smoking, to read to our
children. Traditional policy levers employed to achieve
desired outcomes – taxing or prohibiting
"bad" choices, subsidising or requiring "good"
ones - can work, but they are hard to target and costly to
The idea of 'nudging' citizens into making better
decisions has been in vogue in the past few years. The Obama
administration is a known fan and the UK Government launched a
Behavioural Insights Team to look at using these alternative levers
of influence. For example, using more targeted language in
HMRC tax demands, hard-hitting adverts about the risks of speeding,
and providing better information about food content. These
push human buttons such as guilt, wanting to conform and having
better information to influence choices.
These behavioural levers are cheaper and easier to target,
advantageous in the current financial climate, and they can work.
The Department for Transport estimated that every £1 spent on
their THINK! anti-speeding campaign saved the taxpayer
Policymakers and public service managers face two key
questions: how they can spot when behavioural approaches
might work, and how they implement them in practice?
To spot when personal choices can be influenced by behavioural
levers, the answer to any of the questions below must be
Is the outcome driven by personal choices that citizens do not
consider harmful to others – think healthy eating or early
detection of health issues? Traditional levers here are hard to
apply, and can be counter-productive.
Do the choices you wish to influence occur frequently?
Regular choices such as what to eat, how much to save and whether
to exercise mean that behavioural levers can influence many
decisions at relatively low cost.
Do the choices occur regularly over a long period of
time? A strength of behavioural levers is that they are more
agile and much easier to adjust to changing attitudes than levers
enshrined in legislation and backed up by agencies of the
Do you want to influence a large or diverse number of people?
Behavioural levers are much easier to refine and target than
Is the outcome sought in the distant future, but driven by
choices that occur now? As climate change campaigners are
well aware, people naturally discount future consequences compared
to today's costs. Behavioural levers help people make
real-time decisions with better information.
Is there already a groundswell of positive sentiment towards
the behaviour you are trying to encourage? These people can become
the advocates and foot soldiers you need to influence and embed
wider behavioural change.
Implementing behavioural levers can appear daunting. The key is
to break it down into steps. Firstly, policymakers must identify
the groups who make choices which need to be influenced, and their
desired outcomes. This seems simple but frequently is
not. People are rarely predictable, and have a distaste for
feeling like they are being manipulated by Governments.
Secondly, the causal link between choices and outcomes needs
exploring, ideally through trials and collecting evidence. This
kind of policymaking cannot be done in an ivory tower in
Once the evidence and understanding is there, public bodies need
to invest in levers of influence. In an era of tight budgets this
often means digital marketing, PR rather than advertising, and
These levers, backed up by constant re-evaluation, will become
valuable tools in the armoury of tomorrow's policymakers.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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