We were delighted to host Dr David Halpern, director of the Behavioural Insights Team, for a public policy lecture presented with the Centre for Science and Policy, the Cambridge Masters in Public Policy and the Cambridge University Science and Policy Exchange. Drawing on his 2015 book, ‘Inside the Nudge Unit’, the lecture reflected on the development of the nudge approach and the application of behavioural economics to public policy, in which David Halpern has played a key role and which has grown to be a worldwide application in the ten years since the nudge approach began.
The lecture illustrated the small changes that can be made to public policy in a variety of contexts such as tax, healthcare, pensions, employment, crime reduction, energy, conservation and economic growth, which have positive effects. How social norms influence our response to choices, from paying taxes, opting in to organ donor programmes, and turning up to hospital appointments. And importantly, how we can test and measure the precise impact of small changes to the communication of norms, so that the benefits, in terms of reduced missed appointments, increased tax revenue, or increased donor participation, can be measured against the cost of implementing them.
Overall the lessons from the work of the nudge unit are the benefits of an empirical approach to public policy – testing out ideas, using randomized controlled trials where appropriate, in order to establish ‘what works’. It is this thinking that is being applied in education and local government for example in the ‘What works’ centres, to which the nudge unit are advisers.
The lecture showed the wide interest in public policy issues across the Cambridge community, and particularly in the application of behavioural insights to policy issues. Questions from the audience covered a wide range of issues such as how sustained were the effects shown from nudge approaches, how important was political support for the nudge approach to succeed, and what new thinking and ideas were coming out of psychology and behavioural approaches that could point to new applications of the nudge approach in the future.