Justice Everywhere

a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Author: Fay Niker (Page 2 of 2)

Nudge, Nudge? Privatizing Public Policy

“Like all major changes to democratic accountability, it happened with a minimum of fuss. By the time we heard about it, it was already over.”

Photo: Illustration by Bill Butcher 

This week the government announced that the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), commonly referred to as the ‘nudge unit’, has been ‘spun out’ of Whitehall into a mutual joint venture. The new “social purpose company” is now owned, in roughly equal shares, by BIT employees, the government, and Nesta (an independent charity established by the previous government using £250 million of National Lottery money). The privatisation deal has been described as “one of the biggest experiments in British public sector reform” (Financial Times), on account of this being the first time that privatisation has reached beyond public services and utilities to include an actual government policy team. My intuition, like many other people’s I would imagine, is that this marks a dangerous new precedent in the rise of private power over the public. But what precisely is it that is doing the work for this intuition?

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Moral Motivation and Sustainable Behaviour Change

‘Climate change’ and ‘behaviour change’ are both central themes in the policy landscape, academic research, and media discourse of the twenty-first century. The former has been described by the former Secretary-General of the UN, Kofi Annan, as “the greatest humanitarian challenge facing mankind today”, a statement that carries added weight in light of the complete devastation inflicted upon the Philippines by Typhoon Haiyan – one of the strongest storms ever to make landfall. The latter, ‘behaviour change’, has become a ubiquitous phrase in policymaking circles, representing a radical shift towards a non-regulatory policymaking paradigm, often referred to as nudging.

The 2008 Climate Change Act established the world’s first legally binding climate change target. This has committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050 – a target that requires a major change in the way we live, representative of an unprecedented reversal of a universal trend among industrialised nations concerning the relationship between economic growth and carbon emission. The key question going forward, therefore, is: How is such a radical behavioural/cultural transformation going to be brought about? The current government’s answer appears to rest heavily upon behaviour change techniques that seek to nudge (implicitly encourage, incentivise, etc.) citizens’ toward more sustainable behaviour patterns.

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