I’ve followed, from a distance, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives (SOLACE) conference today. Far from having sessions on fat cat salaries this morning seems to have been devoted to dismissing Nudge to move onto a new fad involving social connections.
Nudge was on one of those fads taken up a few years ago on, effectively, changing people’s behaviour with intelligent design. Classic examples include painting a fly on a urinal (which reduced the cleaning needed because men’s aim improved) or creating the illusion of uneven road surfaces (which reduce traffic speed). There are plenty of examples on their blog. The fundamental principle was ‘choice architecture’ – designing the choices people make so it’s easier for them to make the right choice.
A few weeks ago we took MiniMe to the Science Museum (mainly because I wanted to see the Apollo 10 command module) where there’s a small area for younger children in the basement. A large part is water play, and one bit has air jets under various obstacles so you can see how air moves through water. The problem is that every single person who tried to activate them attempted to pump the button, very few actually experimented to discover they were buttons and you had to keep them depressed to make them work.
A silly example, perhaps, but an interesting one. The area, designed for 3-6 year olds, although I’m sure MiniMe wasn’t the only one under that limit (he’s not quite two), yet everyone, young and old, repeated that mistake. There was clearly something about the design that encouraged people to pump, but not to push. And the consequence was that no-one used that bit of equipment.
The idea that the concepts behind Nudge should be forgotten, as if it was a pair of 70s flares and a horrible mistake, is a nonsense – if the principles were valid a few years ago they remain valid now. I’m not sure why the change in belief, there is always the pressure to appear modern, but perhaps there is also the difficulty in truly adopting something like Nudge in government.
For a start are political difficulties. For example, I have long liked the idea of rewards for people getting back into, and holding down, work. The argument against is that work is its own reward and people should not need added incentive. However, the reality is that for many the idea of sacrificing 35 hours or more a week of ‘free’ time for a small increase in income is not that enticing. But adding an incentive (which need not be that much, vouchers for McDonald’s or stores) reinforces the positive aspects of working by directly linking work with positive outcomes. I would argue it far outweighs the long, and even short, term costs of unemployment.
There are also administrative and cost difficulties. If you take Wandsworth’s street parties, they were incredibly expensive – largely a result of the work that was necessary on the council’s part (since deemed unnecessary by the government). Moving to a cheap fixed fee helps encourage the behaviour we want, the sense of neighbourhood and belonging, but left us with the same work to be done and the added complication of co-ordinating across a number of events, rather than just one. However, in tough times it might seem hard to justify added costs to the council against intangible benefits to the community.
And finally there are the cultural difficulties. As I touched on yesterday it seems that we live in a culture that is defined by the negative– what you can’t do – rather than the positive – what you can do. It is so much easier and much more comfortable to think and act as enforcers in a black and white world than as the encouragers with ever lighter shades of grey.
Which all set me wondering about Wandsworth. The council is, in the neutral sense of the word, a huge bureaucracy – an effect of thirteen years of government target culture and the Daily Mail mentality that creates a risk-adverse approach to public money. Has this led to us developing barriers that discourage people from acting positively? Do you have any examples? I’d love to hear them.