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Nudging to Nowhere

The government's disastrous herd immunity strategy owed much to its fabled 'nudge unit' – a relic from an ideological past, when policymakers believed that small changes would solve big problems.

Established in 2010 within the Cabinet Office, the purpose of the ‘nudge unit’ was to apply behavioural psychology to policy problems, helping to improve public services along the way. Revered throughout Whitehall for this paternalist approach– an approach that included pressuring sick and disabled people towards work – it was thrust into the limelight last week for leading the government response to the coronavirus.

Soon after the coronavirus became a global pandemic, the chief of the nudge unit, Dr David Halpern, was on TV explaining the UK strategy. “There’s going to be a point,” he said, “where you want to cocoon, to protect those at-risk groups so they don’t catch the disease.” Despite evoking images of young (immune) volunteers surrounding care homes like a bee colony, somehow physically protecting the elderly from an acute respiratory virus, he went on to outline the now infamous ‘herd immunity’ strategy. Simple, clear and, most importantly, economical, it was the perfect English approach to a global crisis. Until it wasn’t, with an Imperial College study later revealing that government’s original strategy could kill hundreds of thousands of people unnecessarily. 

Other nudge suggestions from Dr. Halpern involved training up students during the coronavirus crisis to help the old when things got tough. What they would help with, or how many vulnerable individuals would be sacrificed in the meantime, was unclear. Dr. Halpern even proposed a nudge in the way schools were cleaned. Instead of cleaners concentrating on school floors, they might be told to concentrate on surfaces – like handrails – where the virus lingered. In other words, while the rest of Europe was shutting down their entire school systems to combat the coronavirus, the UK government was considering offering cleaning advice. 

But how did we get to this? Well, it should come as no surprise to learn that Dr. Halpern spent over half a decade in Tony Blair’s ‘strategy unit’ at No.10. He was the prime minister’s chief analyst between 2001-2007, helping to inject private sector incentives into public service delivery. It was a time when ‘public sector ethos’ was repurposed to mean letting market logic do its thing.

After Blair, Dr. Halpern went on to establish the Behavioural Insights Team (the formal name for the nudge unit). Run more like a start-up than a Cabinet Office organisation, the team was the first-ever group of civil servants responsible for the privatisation of policy decisions. It was part of an effort to shrink central government and create a ‘private enterprise culture’ in Whitehall. Much like the rampant commercialisation of our NHS in the 2010s – which saw places like Moorfields Eye Hospital opening a clinic in Dubai – the overall aim was to pursuit profit through public services. It is no coincidence that the nudge unit’s founding article spoke about the need to “generate the maximum achievable profits available for distribution.”

As with any business, the nudge unit needed to keep expanding to survive. The company moved from nudging taxpayers to complete their income forms more quickly to working with the World Bank on Colombia’s peace process. As its scope grew, so did its policy-arsenal. It went from outlining behavioural cues to designing complex algorithms that informed organisational policy-making. One way was through machine learning, the study of algorithms and statistical models.

This innovation led to inevitable obfuscation, which Michael Sanders, former head of research at the nudge unit, said was “sort of the point.” Clients don’t know how they reach answers, and sometimes neither does the team. This abstract way of working is completely unsuited to a pandemic, where government decisions must be clearly communicated and based on available evidence. As we have now discovered to our cost, following black box algorithms instead is a surefire way of running up the death toll.

The nudge unit’s unique selling point was quirky approaches to incorrigible policy problems. It came as no surprise to most civil servants to see them quickly pounce on the coronavirus crisis. But the nudge unit is full of self-professed ‘radical incrementalists’. For them, public policy is about changing public behaviour without the public even realising you are there. This seemed a clever approach to their devotees in the early days, before the government wised up to the scale of the threat. Now we know it is exactly the wrong way to deal with the massive social changes the coronavirus pandemic requires.

Much like austerity, the term ‘policy failure’ hardly does the government’s original strategy justice. The coming weeks will reveal just how many people it condemned to unnecessary deaths. This is what happens when government officials are incapable of understanding the world we live in now – a post-2008 world where the institutions of the state have lost what authority they once had, and where the market has hollowed out those that remain subject to public trust. The urgent issues facing the nation cannot be fixed with some nudging here or there. Trying to run the country as if it is 2007 is going to kill people. The nudge unit – a sequela from a different era – perfectly encapsulates the problem.