Whitehall 'Nudge unit' to be part privatised

image captionThe 'nudge unit' uses behavioural science to influence government policies

A government unit aimed at "nudging" people into making better life choices is to become a profit-making business.

The Behavioural Insights Team - known as the "nudge unit" - will join with a commercial partner and become the first policy unit to be spun out of Whitehall.

It finds ways of "nudging" people to make better choices themselves, rather than through state intervention.

A competition will be held to find a business partner for the unit.

The team, established after the 2010 election, applies insights from academic research in behavioural economics and psychology to public policy and services.

In addition to working with government departments, it has worked with local authorities, charities, non-governmental organisations, private sector partners and foreign government to develop proposals and test them in government policy.

'Growth area'

The original nudge theory suggests that bad choices and laziness are part of what makes people human. It suggests making the right choices easier for people, rather than relying on people to act in their self interest.

Examples of putting this into practice is getting school canteens to put healthy food at the front to "nudge kids towards good diets", or messages on wine labels saying "the average British drinker drinks one glass of wine a night", to encourage responsible drinking.

The new structure will see the nudge unit part-owned by the government, with a partner putting in new investment and the employees owning the rest. The competition for the partnership will be announced on Wednesday.

It could become the first of "dozens" of elements of Whitehall to be spun out, as Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude plans to shake-up the Civil Service.

A spokesman for Mr Maude said: "We are in a global race for the jobs and opportunities of the future. To get Britain back on the rise we must find innovative ways to deliver better services more efficiently.

"It's great news that the world-renowned 'nudge' unit is spinning out from central government. As a mutual they will combine the benefits of private sector experience and investment with the innovation and commitment from staff leadership.

"This accelerates our drive to make public assets pay their way. We hope to support dozens more new spin outs over the next few years. This is a whole new growth area and Britain is leading the way."

The Public and Commercial Services union said that a recent opinion poll suggested "only 16% of civil servants were even 'interested in exploring the idea' of becoming a mutual" and that "lack of appetite" was reflected in the selection of the small 'nudge' team based in the Cabinet Office.

But the move was welcomed by the CBI business organisation, which said it would generate "savings and potential new revenue for the government" and similar "partnership models" should be spread to "many other functions across central and local government".

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