Nudge: The Implementation of a social innovation

July 23, 2015

NudgeThe UK Government’s Behavioural Insights team has been reported as implementing a highly successful social innovation through influencing or ‘nudging’ personal decisions

The announcement this week claimed that the unit has ‘signed up an extra 100,000 organ donors a year, persuaded 20% more people to consider switching energy provider, and doubled the number of army applicants.’ Plaudits were offered to

David Halpern, chief executive of the behavioural insights team, which has quadrupled in size since it was spun out of government in February 2014. Now a private company jointly owned by the Cabinet Office, Nesta and its employees, the “nudge unit” (nicknamed after the best-selling book by economist Richard H Thaler) permeates almost every area of government policy.

Unsurprisingly, the approach is likely to be seen by some as gentle persuasion; by others as a dangerous attempt at social engineering. To understand more, we need to go back to the publication of a best-selling book Nudge and how it attracted the interest of David Cameron.

[The following is based on my unpublished notes mostly over the period 2006-8. I have tried to acknowledge the sources, and welcome any suggestions of materials I may have left unattributed.]

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Bill Bratton to advise on London’s gang culture: A test case for creative leadership?

August 14, 2011

by Tudor Rickards

Bill Bratton is one of America’s top police officers, with a record of success as a strategic leader and change agent. His appointment by David Cameron to advise on gang culture offers a test case for theories of creative leadership and change

I have followed the story of Bill Bratton’s leadership methods for some years. The case is written up in the textbook Dilemmas of Leadership and has been revised for a new edition [2012]. It has also figured in an earlier LWD post [Dec 2006] in which it was compared with the efforts in Greater Manchester to deal with gang culture.

In an interview for the BBC Mr Bratton was reported as saying

“I think part of what the government is going to do is to take a look at what worked and what didn’t work during the course of the last week [Aug 2011]. My assignment is to focus more on the issues of the American experience dealing with gangs and what we may be able to share with them that might help them to prevent similar activities in the future. Our success in Los Angeles in reducing gang violence significantly was a co-ordination of very assertive tough police tactics but also a lot of community outreach, a lot of creative, innovative programmes such as a significant use of gang interventionists.”

Beyond Soundbites

The riots last week were accompanied by an outburst of suggestions from experts offering a welter of explanations and prescriptions. They were in part soundbites which tapped into simplistic notions of morality and control. Broadly, they gave comfort to the public mood of hawkishness for dealing with the rioters with debate around whether there was any benefit from seeking to understand the wider social context of alienation and disaffection.

In contrast, Bratton’s comments above links assertive tough police tactics with strategic programmes of a creative kind. This is not a simple concept to convey as a soundbite.

Police training and leadership development

HM Police forces in the UK have an international reputation for selection, training and development of its officers. Its training colleges continue to to provide support for other forces around the world. ACPO (the Association of Chief Police Officers) is far more than a professional trade union (which arguably it is). As an infrequent guest speaker, I can confirm that its annual conference engages with complex strategic, political, and operational matters in a challenging and impressive fashion.

As one ACPO member pointed out this weekend [Aug 12th 2011] senior police figures are in regular contact about best practices with their counterparts around the world including the United States.

Mr Cameron’s Departure Lounge favourites

The Prime Minister has shown an enthusiasm for emerging ideas for management and leadership. He has been known to encourage the reading of such books as Nudge , which outlines a system of social shaping through carefully designed feedback, consistent with Bill Bratton’s ‘zero tolerance for broken windows’ concept.

I have suggested [in the book Dilemmas of Leadership] that one leadership strategy for organisational change is the encouragement of widespread study of a favoured book. The idea was presented as a Departure Lounge dilemma in which a young executive has to evaluate the ideas in such a book rapidly. Mr Cameron’s cabinet presumably has members who pass on that challenge to advisors (some of whom may have drawn the book to the attention of the PM in the first place).

I have some recollection that the works of Malcolm Gladwell have also found favour in the past. Among then, The Tipping Point cites Bill Bratton and directly illustrates how a leader’s actions can trigger radical change.

For further study

The appointment of Bill Bratton has the hallmarks of a symbolic leadership gesture. That is not to say it has no practical value. The story is worth following and studying for its insights into currently popular leadership themes outlined above.