Government can alter public behaviour, top adviser says

Man smoking cigarette and drinking pint of beer Can government persuade people to change their actions, peers asked.

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Public attitudes towards healthy eating and recycling can be changed by "reframing" the decisions people make, a top government adviser has said.

Behavioural economics, which seeks to "nudge" people towards beneficial social choices, can be a "game-changer" in key areas, David Halpern said.

He told a Lords committee examining this approach that it could also help to strip away ineffective regulation.

But peers questioned what evidence there was to show that it worked.

Before gaining power, top Conservatives expressed interest in the "nudge" theory of affecting social change.

'Nudge unit'

Proposed by academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, this approach argues that bad choices and laziness are a large part of what makes people human.

Instead of appealing to voters' self-interest, such as urging people to save money, turn down the heating or eat more healthily, they suggested politicians must help to make the "right" choices "easier".

This could mean automatically enrolling employees in savings schemes, with the option to opt out, or school canteens putting healthy food at the front of the counter to "nudge kids towards good diets".

Start Quote

If you want to affect change, the thing to do is to make it feel not at all like change”

End Quote David Halpern Government adviser

On Tuesday, the Lords Science and Technology Committee held the first in a series of sessions to look into how far government was adopting such an approach and whether it was "evidence-based".

Mr Halpern said he was head of a small unit at the Cabinet Office, known as the Behavioural Insight Team but dubbed the "nudge unit", with a remit to advise on the government's "big society" agenda.

He was looking at the "small number" of issues where changes to public behaviour could yield huge gains for society, such as public health and pension provision.

While behavioural choices - such as smoking and excessive drinking - took years off people's lives, the amount of funding going into research into the subject was comparatively small, he said.

The focus should be on changing the outcomes resulting from people's decisions as much as changing the decisions themselves, he told peers.

"If you want to affect change, the thing to do is to make it feel not at all like change," he said.

'Risks'

Mr Halpern was chief analyst in the No 10 Strategy Unit for six years under Tony Blair.

He told peers he had written a paper for the former prime minister about behavioural economics but that "it had not been heavily pursued".

The coalition government was more pre-disposed to pursue this agenda, he suggested, as its instincts were more deregulatory than its predecessor's.

When successfully applied, behavioural economics could help to "dismantle or ease" regulation and to provide workable alternatives, he told peers.

But he added: "There are also risks to this approach if it is used inappropriately."

The committee, whose members include the scientist Lord Winston and former Lib Dem MP Lord Willis, also heard from senior officials from the Department for Education.

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