Comment: “Nudge theory” has been in the news lately, due to the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Economics to the American economist, Richard Thaler. Thaler’s work led the UK government to set up a “nudge unit” – known also as the “Behavioural Insights Team” – under former Prime Minister, David Cameron. As an example of a “nudge” initiative, in 2012 the UK government enrolled employees automatically in a firm’s pension scheme, unless workers formally requested to be exempted. Saving funds for retirement was therefore created as the default position, on the assumption that workers really wanted to save and that inertia prevented them from doing so. Inertia, of course, was also presumed to create the guarantee that the initiative would work – people would simply not bother to opt out.
How are we to comment usefully on this policy development? Below I suggest deploying a WPR analysis in two ways, in commenting on the “nudge” phenomenon itself, and also in critical analysis of any particular “nudge” intervention (such as the pensions scheme).
If we apply WPR to the “nudge” phenomenon, the “problem” is represented to be failures on the parts of citizens to behave in desired ways. Those who are enthusiastic supporters of “nudge theory” are clear that the goal is behaviour modification. Note that the associated field is Behavioural Economics.
Thinking about this problem representation produces useful insights into subjectification processes in current regimes of governing (on subjectification see Bacchi and Goodwin, Poststructural Policy Analysis, 2016, pp. 49-53). Whereas neoliberalism is commonly associated with an assumed rational actor who is charged with self-regulation on the presumption that they will act in their own best interests, in “nudge theory” citizens need “steering”. That is, the “subject” is constituted as, to an extent, irrational, as not knowing what is in their “best interests”. So, “nudge theory” provides a caution to over-generalization about any presumed neoliberal hegemony and alerts us to the existence of hybrid forms of rule within liberal regimes (Bacchi, Analysing policy, 2009, p. 29).
It is also useful to think in genealogical terms about “nudge theory” (see Question 3 in Chart). How has it come about? And what is its novelty, given that almost every policy is directed, to some extent, towards shaping citizen behaviours? For example, how is Scotland’s minimum unit price for alcohol NOT a “nudge” http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-41981909? The term “nudge” provides a hint here. The suggestion in “nudge” is that the shaping intervention is gentle or minor, simply encouraging or promoting “desirable” behaviours. In this way such changes are portrayed as consistent with a governmental approach where the state “steers” rather than “rows”, a position associated with New Public Management and UK Labour’s so-called “Third Way”. You could say that the interventions are portrayed as rather “mundane”, making me wonder why Woolgar and Neyland (2013; see “Mundane Governance” entry in “Research Hub”, 12 November 2017) do not mention it.
In terms of any specific “nudge” intervention, a WPR analytic lens produces the question – what is the “problem” in this intervention represented to be? In terms of the above example of the pensions scheme, what kind of “problem” is produced by a policy of compulsory saving for old age, and where are the silences?
What is noteworthy here is that, as “nudge theory” currently stands, there is no space to ask this kind of question. The behavioral changes prompted by the “nudges” are taken for granted as desirable, as are the presumed “problems” requiring those altered behaviours. A good deal of necessary critical reflection simply disappears. Woolgar and Neyland (2013, p. 135) offer questions that could usefully be employed here. Instead of thinking about “mundane governance” simply in terms of compliance (“does it work?”), they insist on the need to broader the terms within which judgments are formed about the “effectiveness” of any policy – “we need to ask ‘working’ on whose terms, according to whose definition, assessed by what means, in what circumstances, when, for how long and to what ends?” These questions, which are consistent with the kind of analysis produced in Questions 2 and 4 of WPR Bacchi WPR CHART), would provide a basis for critically analyzing “nudge” interventions.