Some 15 years after the publication of Missionary Government, in which Demos outlined a visionary programme for re-imagining the role of government in changing cultures and behaviours, the House of Lords has launched a Science and Technology Sub-Committee on behaviour change, led by Baroness Neuberger.
The Sub-Committee are this week hearing evidence from prominent civil servants including David Halpern, who has formerly worked for Tony Blair’s Strategy Unit, the Institute for Government and is now said to be part of Cameron’s ‘nudge unit‘, Karen Hancock and David Bartholemew from the Department of Education, and Rachel McCloy from the Government Economic and Social Research team.
Evidence will relate to current research developments in behaviour change, evaluation of government interventions and the ethical and social concerns raised by novel and innovative approaches to changing behaviour.
After two years’ of research into the politics and ethics of behaviour change interventions in public policy, we have provided evidence to the Sub-Commitee relating to how behaviour change policies problematise the threshold between the UK state and its citizens. We reported specifically on the contribution of critical social science research to understanding and interrogating the ethical and practical basis for behaviour change interventions.
Our evidence raises concerns about the wide-spread adoption of psychological, neuroscientific and behavioural-economic explanations of human behaviour within the civil service. We point towards the limited conception of personhood contained within such disciplines, and draw attention to ongoing debates and contestation around key behavioural concepts and processes, arguably brushed over in the enthusiastic adoption of behaviour change. We raise questions about which disciplines and forms of evidence are valued above others and why.
The use of behaviour change initiatives necessitates analytical research which interrogates the unintended and wider consequences of government interventions aimed at shaping the behaviours, attitudes and identities of citizens, and requires institutions which assist citizens in holding government to account. We highlight concerns about whether these governmental and non-governmental institutions can be adeqately supported in the contexts of a smaller and weaker public sector.
Serious consideration should be given to the kinds of behavioural norms promoted in such interventions. As such, we recommend that behaviour change interventions need to be audited in ethical, political and social terms: what types of behaviour, identities and attitudes are being promoted, and in what ways can these be said to be beyond political contestation? What kind of behaviours and identities are demonised or marginalised and what are the potential side-effects of so doing? What types of behaviours/identities are absent from the intervention and why? Who gets to decide which behaviours are to be encouraged and which prohibited, and how are these decisions arrived at?
We will be watching closely as the evidence is debated. Further written evidence has already been submitted by the DEA, which argues for more empowering styles of intervention – opposing the ‘nudge’ appraoch to that of deliberate and deliberative educational strategies. Submissions have also been prepared by the Wellcome Trust, the British Academy, and the Sustainable Devlopment Commission.