“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?
Debates about the privatisation of government functions tends to give rise to instrumental questions concerning the desirable ways of providing these services, most often casting the matter in terms of the trade-off between private entrepreneurialism and public bureaucracy. Proponents of privatisation emphasise efficiency, innovation and flexibility; opponents of privatisation emphasise the loose fidelity of private entities on account of the lack of accountability. The case for privatising the BIT followed suit: Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, has stated that “this government is determined to help Britain win the global race by setting free innovative public sector entrepreneurs like these”. This is part of its aim to build a “diverse ecosystem of providers… working alongside the public sector”, in order to drive innovation in government commercial models.* Similarly, the reaction from those who see this as “backdoor privatisation” focuses on the lack of accountability (for instance, the BIT is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act), a danger that is made more worrying in light of recent scandals involving services that the government has already outsourced (e.g., problems with private prison providers, and the referral of G4S and Serco to the Serious Fraud Office).
We can understand this debate, therefore, as taking place within a framework provided by a shared assumption of both the proponents and opponents of BIT’s privatisation, namely, that the governmental function in question (i.e., behaviour change policy) can in principle be performed by either public or private entities and that the choice between them must be based on addressing the empirical question of who is likely to perform this function better. However, my (and others’) intuitive dislike of BIT privatisation does not look like it can be explained in terms of instrumental concerns about the efficacy of function-provision. Rather, its underlying rationale is grounded in different normative considerations to those officially used to justify the opposition to privatisation: an oft-unarticulated conviction that the identity of the agent is crucial in providing the good.
It is the nature of ‘the good’ in the case of the private provision of nudge policy that seems to be doing a lot of the work for this normative constraints justification, which states that: while a privatised nudge unit can execute the task (and perhaps do it better than the state-owned nudge unit), there are normative constraints that preclude the performance of nudge policy being made by agents other than the state. “Nudging” is the controversial policymaking mechanism that implements policy on citizens’ automatic, subconscious behavioural responses in order to elicit targeted behaviour change. It works by applying Kahneman-style lessons from cognitive psychology and behavioural economics so as to promote behaviour that is in citizens’ own, as well as society’s general, interests; but nudging “works best in the dark” (i.e., without the ‘nudgee’ knowing it is happening), so has been charged with being a subtle type of psychological manipulation, which might look to be morally problematic as a behaviour change tactic even to those who are sympathetic to the goals that nudge is trying to achieve.
But if we put to one side issues surrounding the legitimacy of a state-owned nudge unit and focus on the public-private dimension of legitimacy, a non-instrumental anti-privatisation argument might maintain that some functions are “inherently governmental” and that nudging (as psychological manipulation aimed at behaviour change) is one such function. So the justification for the role of the state in nudging is based on who it is that is doing the nudging (rather than, say, the state’s superior nudging ability). This represents a normative consideration that has not been aired in the critical discussion of BIT’s privatisation. It is not clear that this line of argument could be fruitful; but it is worth exploring whether or not it could be, because if it does capture a relevant consideration, then it might be that we find ourselves in a strange situation: where the UK government has privatised (and wants to privatise other) inherently governmental functions – that is, functions that cannot in principle be privatized.
* In reality, it appears that a key motivation was “staff retention”: privatizing the BIT means that the 16-strong team are no longer bound by civil service pay grades; they are now policy consultants and shareholders in a for-profit company that has a great competitive advantage, and one that has already been linked with the use of success fees, meaning that if its advice leads to significant customer (governmental and/or private-sector) savings, the company gets a share.