Beyond nudge: advancing the state-of-the-art of behavioural public policy and administration

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  • 1 Fulda University of Applied Sciences, Germany
  • | 2 Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, Germany
  • | 3 University of Exeter, UK
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This Special Issue features theoretical, methodological, and empirical advancements of the state-of-the-art in behavioural public policy and administration. In this introduction, we develop a behaviourally-informed, integrated conceptual model of the policy process that embeds individual attitudes and behaviour into context at the meso and macro level. We argue that behavioural approaches can be situated within a broader tradition of methodological individualism. Despite focusing on the micro level of policy processes, the contributions in this issue demonstrate that the behavioural study of public policy and administration can go beyond the individual level and give important insights into policy and societal outcomes. Our model enables us to draw more substantial lessons from behavioural research by moving beyond the verification of individual behaviour change. If based on a broad conceptual design and methodological pluralism, behavioural policies bear the potential to better understand, investigate and shape social outcomes.

Abstract

This Special Issue features theoretical, methodological, and empirical advancements of the state-of-the-art in behavioural public policy and administration. In this introduction, we develop a behaviourally-informed, integrated conceptual model of the policy process that embeds individual attitudes and behaviour into context at the meso and macro level. We argue that behavioural approaches can be situated within a broader tradition of methodological individualism. Despite focusing on the micro level of policy processes, the contributions in this issue demonstrate that the behavioural study of public policy and administration can go beyond the individual level and give important insights into policy and societal outcomes. Our model enables us to draw more substantial lessons from behavioural research by moving beyond the verification of individual behaviour change. If based on a broad conceptual design and methodological pluralism, behavioural policies bear the potential to better understand, investigate and shape social outcomes.

Introduction

Under the headings of ‘Behavioural Public Policy’ (BPP) and ‘Behavioural Public Administration’ (BPA), insights about psychological micro-mechanisms increasingly inform the study, design, and implementation of public policy. While BPP generally refers to interventions that are ‘directly inspired by, and designed on, the principles of behavioral research’ (Galizzi, 2014: 27), BPA is defined as the ‘analysis of public administration from the micro-level perspective of individual behavior’ (Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017: 45). Behavioural interventions are often claimed to be far more than just another tool in the policy toolbox. Instead, they are deemed as an innovative approach to reassess policymaking and public administration as a whole. Behavioural interventions and respective analytic perspectives shift the focus of public policy and its implementation to the individual level – behavioural policies are influenced by behavioural science and aimed at changing the individual’s behaviour in a certain situation. By contrast, in many ways the potential of applying behavioural insights throughout the policy process has not yet been fully exploited. Seeking to contribute to filling this gap, this themed issue features theoretical, methodological and empirical advancements of the state of the art of BPP and BPA.

In the past two decades, BPP and BPA have attracted much political and scientific attention nearly all over the world, and are sometimes presented as an ultimate panacea. At the same time, limitations to behavioural approaches have become evident. For example, behavioural approaches have yet to be applied to more complex problems, rather than merely focusing on ‘low hanging fruits’ (Hansen, 2018: 195). Related questions are how behavioural polices and individual-level behaviour translate into policy and social outcomes and to what extent micro-level behavioural insights are accountable to those changes at the meso and macro level of the political system (Jilke et al, 2019). We also know little about how behavioural insights can travel across different contexts of countries and policy sectors, considering their methodological basis. Finally, the increased use of behavioural insights necessitates a broader consensus on practical guidelines and standards, even if we have seen some efforts in this direction (OECD, 2018; Sunstein and Reisch, 2019).

The eight articles in this themed issue review and advance the state-of-the-art of behavioural approaches to public policy and public administration agenda-wise, theoretically, methodologically and empirically. In order to contribute to such advancements, we situate behavioural approaches in an overarching behavioural model of the policy process that embeds individual attitudes and behaviour into context at the meso and macro level. Such a model consequently helps us understand how these micro-level processes translate into aggregated policy and social outcomes. We argue that, as these outcomes create new social facts and contexts for individual behaviour, this helps us understand the political, complex and contextual nature and implications of behavioural public policy and administration.

In sum, the contributions pave the way for a broader understanding of behavioural concepts that draws more widely from behavioural and social sciences and is based on pluralistic methods and evidence. Such a notion of advanced BPP/BPA allows scholars of public policy and administration a varied, and more radical, use of behavioural insights that includes the examination of a wide range of individual, collective and organisational behaviours in various policy contexts and throughout the policy process.

In the next, second, section, we introduce a behavioural model of the policy process that informs this themed issue, and discuss how this model helps us understand the social impacts of individual-level behaviour in light of the criticisms of behavioural approaches mentioned earlier. Based on this model, we summarise the contributions of the themed issue and highlight key insights gained from them (in the third section). This allows us in the fourth section to formulate broader lessons to be learned for the study and practice of behavioural public policy and administration. We then discuss limitations of the research presented here, as well as avenues for future research (the fifth section). A brief conclusion will follow (in the sixth section).

Linking macro, meso and micro levels: a behavioural model of the policy process

Based on empirical evidence on ‘how humans actually make choices’ (OECD, 2017) behavioural policymakers seek to influence the micro-foundations that lead to individual actions (Jilke et al, 2019). Hence, BBP (and also BPA) puts a pragmatic emphasis on ‘what works’ on the ground, while placing less emphasis on the level of social structures (John, 2018). As a consequence, the political dimension inscribed in behaviourally informed policies receives less attention. This in-built focus on ‘micro-level behavioural processes’ (Moynihan, 2018: 1) has been a recurrent point of criticism against behavioural policy interventions as it can lead scholars and practitioners to neglect the social and political conditions and implications of individual actions (Brown, 2012; Leggett, 2014; Ewert, 2020). For example, ‘nudges’ (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009), defined as small-scale changes in public choice architectures to achieve individual behaviour change, arguably have a limited capacity to cause lasting behavioural change because they often are not adequately situated in and linked to people’s social contexts and identities, for example, socioeconomic factors that underlie such behaviours (Mols et al, 2015; Ewert, 2020; Bhanot and Linos, 2020). BPP has tended to underutilise insights that ‘explain how behaviours are embedded in and shaped by environments and people’s life worlds’ (Ewert, 2020: 351). Thus far, having a largely descriptive focus (Battaglio et al, 2019), BPA scholarship has engaged in very similar discussions (for example, Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017; Moynihan, 2018; Bhanot and Linos, 2020). There is increasing consensus that that an ‘in-depth understanding of context and behaviours is crucial’ (Sanders et al, 2018: 265) to tackle more complex policy and organisational problems.

We argue that an appropriate framework for ‘rethinking the foundations’ (Hansen, 2018: 194) of behavioural public policy and administration has to serve a dual purpose. First, it has to explain how micro, meso and macro perspectives are linked with each other. Second, building on the first purpose, it has to explain how behavioural policies are embedded in and shaped by such a compressive perspective on the policy process. For that reason, we introduce a behavioural model of the policy process that offers a nuanced understanding of the interrelations between social structures and individual action, see Figure 1. This model illustrates ‘that the unit of analysis focuses on psychological processes within or between individuals – what psychologists call intra- and intersubjectivity. The micro level is typically embedded within the meso (for example, organisational) and macro (for example, institutional roles) levels’ (Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017: 46). The main focus is on the cognitive processes, attitudes and behaviour of individual actors in public policy and administration, and the influence of bounded rationality (Simon, 1991) thereon.

Figure 1:
Figure 1:

Behavioural model of the policy process

Citation: Policy & Politics 49, 1; 10.1332/030557320X15987279194319

Source: own illustration based on Coleman (1994); Moseley and Thomann (2020).

According to this perspective, the ‘behavioural turn’ in public policy and administration aligns with a broader tradition of methodological individualism in the social sciences. Rather than immersing into methodological individualism’s competing strands and interpretations (see for an overview: Udehn, 2002; Hodgson, 2007; List and Spiekermann, 2013), we follow a sociological understanding of the term (Coleman, 1994) that ‘involves both individuals and social structures’ (Hodgson, 2007: 222). This level-spanning approach that ‘runs from macro to micro to macro’ (Udehn, 2002: 493) seeks to understand collective action at the macro level by studying the micro-foundations of individual behaviour and attitudes. It centrally asserts that ‘the social world is ultimately the result of many individuals interacting with one another’ (List and Spiekermann, 2013: 629). Understood this way, we can see how BPA and BPP share similar analytic and methodological perspectives with other strands of Political Science, Economy and Psychology, such as Political Psychology and Behavioural Economics (Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017; Olsen et al, 2018).

Despite its focus on micro-foundations of social action, crucially, this model acknowledges that individual behaviour and attitudes are influenced not only by individual psychological conditions but also embedded in social and political contexts. This seemingly trivial, but key assumption allows us to connect behavioural policymaking and administrative behaviour to social structures and broader societal outcomes, and vice versa. As Figure 1 illustrates, ‘social facts’ at the macro and meso level – such as institutional, socio-economic, cultural and environmental contexts – create individual conditions for action at the micro level. Taken together, these conditions translate into individual action that, in aggregate, produces social outcomes at the macro level. These outcomes, in turn, create new social facts which again influence action on the micro level. This is also known as ‘system behaviour’ (Udehn, 2002: 494) produced by combined individual actions. From an overarching societal perspective, aggregated social outcomes as results or collective dispositions of individual interactions are often of greater interest than individual action considered in separation.

The proposed behavioural model of the policy process illustrates this back-and-forth interaction between the micro and the macro level. It adapts the ‘Coleman boat’ (Coleman, 1994) to acknowledge the impact of ‘bounded rationality’ (Simon, 1991) on the cognitive processes and behaviours that lead to individual action. This marriage of methodological individualism with bounded rationality allows us to analyse the broader implications of behavioural policy interventions across policy levels and throughout the policy process. Applying the model can help behavioural scholars and policymakers avoiding a one-sided focus ‘on micro-level nudges while ignoring macro “shoves”’ (Moynihan, 2018: 3), by shedding light on the interrelations and interactions between social structures and individuals within a broader understanding of the policymaking process. Applying the framework has a core implication for behavioural policy and administration scholarship: Even if behavioural policy and administration research focuses on the micro level of individual action, the results gain their relevance from their broader implications for more aggregated social outcomes. Speaking in political science terms, our model adds a behavioural dimension to the policy feedback framework (among others Pierson, 1993) in public policy (Mettler and Soss, 2004) and administration (Moynihan and Soss, 2014). As assumed, the aggregated outcomes of BPP and BPA shape different sites of politics, that is, governments, policymaking and administrations, at the macro and meso level which then in turn again influence the design of new behavioural interventions at the micro level. To investigate this ‘dynamic interaction between levels’ (Roberts, 2020: 633), we need to introduce social and political embeddedness as a relevant factor for understanding behavioural public policy and administration. Doing so allows a better understanding of the social and political outcomes and implications.

In fact, recent discussions within these subfields have pointed toward the need for behavioural perspectives to illuminate the micro-foundations of macro-level theories (Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017) and offer such broader social and political insights at the meso and macro level (Feitsma and Whitehead, 2019; Bhanot and Linos, 2020), by linking cognitive, socio-cultural and policy-related mechanisms at those different levels of aggregation (Straßheim, 2019). For example, at the meso level, they should produce concrete practical insights for the management and performance of and decision-making in public organisations, the success of failure of network collaboration, and contribute to the diagnosis, evaluation and development of policy design and its assumptions (Gopalan and Pirog, 2017; Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017; Hansen, 2018; Moynihan, 2018; Sanders et al, 2018; Battaglio et al, 2019). Linking to the macro level, behavioural perspectives should weigh social costs against social benefits when designing research with practitioners (Bhanot and Linos, 2020) and help us understand the conditions under which public administration and policy is perceived as representative and legitimate by citizens, or how the societal context influences new policies (Olsen et al, 2018; Feitsma and Whitehead, 2019; Banerjee and John, 2020). Understanding these influences and interactions also paves the way for integrating behaviourally informed policies into policy mixes including conventional instruments that effectively also address structural aspects of policy problems (Ewert, 2020). All this seems necessary for BPP to create the positive social impacts it initially set out to have (Hansen, 2018). Weaver’s (2014; 2015) work on compliance regimes offers one example of an analytical approach combining such different levels of social action, types of instruments, and focusing on more complex patterns of behaviour change and integrating insights from behavioural public policy and administration.

We further illustrate the causal link between macro, meso and micro level by discussing the social outcomes emanating from the contributions to this themed issue in section four. First, however, we present key insights resulting from the eight contributions.

Insights from the themed issue contributions

We now discuss how the eight contributions to this themed issue advance the state of the art of the behavioural research agenda, theory, methodology, and provide empirical insights. Table 1 summarises the findings of the contributions. Later in this article, we present each contribution’s core focus, research question and their relevance, units of analysis, methodology and core findings. Our themed issue features four categories of contributions: research agenda, theoretical, methodological and empirical contributions.

Table 1:

Summary of results

ContributionBenjamin Ewert Kathrin LoerAlice Moseley Eva ThomannSarah Cotterill Peter John Marie JohnstonSarah Ball Brian HeadTom EntwistleHolger Stra ßheimDon S. Lee Soonae ParkEmilio P. Visintin Jean-M. Bonvin Frédéric Varone Fabrizio Butera Max Lovey Emilie Rosenstein
Core focusInterdisciplinary research agendaTheoretical – potential of BPA to explain street-level behaviourMethodological – reporting standardsMethodological – practice-orientedTheoretical – fatalism as a decision-making biasTheoretical with empirical illustration – transformations of behavioural experts’ networksEmpirical – public organisationsEmpirical – Debiasing street-level bureaucrats (SLBs)
Unit of analysis/ActorsAdvanced BPPStreet-level bureaucrats’ interactions with and decisions about clientsStudies of BPP interventions/ResearchersEveryday practices and choices of BI teams in central agenciesMechanism of individual behaviour changeBehavioural expert networksBureaucrats in local governmentBureaucrats in local government
Research interestBroadening the understanding of Behavioural Public Policy (BPP) that draws more widely from behavioural and social sciences and is based on pluralistic methods and evidenceHow can different heuristics and biases explain the behaviour of frontline policy implementers?How can the adoption of reporting standards improve the reliability and reproducibility of research and provide a more robust evidence base from which to generalise findings?How was the UK BIT model adapted and developed in Australia? How do the members of BITs describe their mission and mandate, their selection of problems or projects, their research methods? What is the interplay between their professed scientific rigour and the wider political and organisational contexts?Understanding the dysfunctions of passivity, suggestibility and reactance. What is the relevance to nudge of different types of fatalism?The relation between epistemic communities (EC) and instrument constituencies (IC): mechanisms of authority attribution in formations of collective policy agency; reasons for the global spread of behavioural expertise?What is the impact of individual and organisational factors and the degree of bureaucratic discretion civil servants perceive in the organisation on their willingness to implement agency heads’ changes of direction?Can a thought- provoking nudge encourage street-level bureaucrats (SLBs) to use their discretionary power and make meaningful decisions that eventually contribute to the achievement of policy goals?
Policy area(s)/case(s)MultipleStreet-level bureaucracyThree BI teams in AustraliaHealth and allied disciplinesGlobal expansion of behavioural expertise over the past ten years1,800 local civil servants from all 242 local governments in South Korea115 in-service SLBs implementing the disability insurance policy in Switzerland
MethodsScoping review, peer survey and expertise (SPE)Literature review and derivation of theoretical propositionsIn-depth review of existing reporting standardsTwo ethnographic research projects including interviews with key personnelCritical survey of the fatalism literatureDocument analysis; social network analysisSurvey list experimentField experiment
Core findingsConceptual cornerstones of BPP that allows a more radical use of behavioural insights throughout the policy process and is better suited to respond to complex policy problems:
  • at every stage of the policy process

  • combining qualitative and quantitative methods

  • interdisciplinary variety (beyond behavioural economics and psychology)

  • behavioural insights on policymakers and policytakers.

Behavioural model of frontline policy implementation 11 testable propositions for further testing. Importance of identity, emotions, and communication for policy outcomes. Biases of SLBs are problematic if they create adverse social outcomes (injustice, ineffective/inefficient policies).Use of the Template for Intervention Description and Replication (TIDieR) checklist and the Behaviour Change Technique Taxonomy would add rigour to the reporting of interventions. There is a need for a combined tool to guide the design and reporting of randomised controlled trials, incorporating elements from various sources.BI teams use and promote RCTs in government policy innovation. Growing awareness of the constraints of relying solely on RCTs in the development of behaviourally-informed policy. Strict adherence to rigorous empirical research may represent a risk to BIT’s long-term growth and relevance.A fatalist mindset – whether it be passive, protective or pathological – has profound implications for the responsiveness of citizens to behaviour change initiatives. Fatalists will either ignore, respond too readily, or else subvert nudges intended to deliver behaviour improvements.An ‘agency shift’ from EC to IC happens when a) the consensual belief system of an increasingly diverse EC is losing its relevance and coherence and b) when instead instruments are being authorised and, in turn, lend authority to the whole collective. In the case of BPP networks, an IC has taken over that is based on RCTs as self-sustaining practices of epistemic and political authorisation. BPP is increasingly diverse and includes deliberative but also technocratic and epistocratic tendencies.Bureaucrats are more willing to implement their agency heads’ policy change when their own policy views are shared by the agency heads. The degree to which bureaucrats are willing to execute the principals’ policy change is greater when bureaucrats perceive that they have higher levels of discretion within the organisation.A thought-provoking nudge intended to pay specific attention to vulnerability processes along the beneficiaries’ life-course has an impact on the humanisation of beneficiaries, and this in turn leads to more effective policy decisions.
Social outcomeMultiple purposes of advanced BPP, including a reassessment of policymaking itself.Translation of micro-level policy delivery into social outcomes:
  • problem-solving

  • improving/reforming policies & organisations

  • social (in)equity

  • inefficient/ineffective policy delivery. Behaviourally informed environment of ‘better regulation’, policy and organisational design and management.

Better behaviourally-informed evidence. TIDieR can improve transparency in the reporting of the social facts and conditions of individual action which inform the context in which a BPP intervention was developed.Practices and methodology for BI teams that ensure long-term growth and relevance.Ignorance of authoritative advice; dysfunctional public service bureaucracies.Explaining varieties of BPP. Globally active experts need to be aware that the ideas they propose might develop a political life of their own.Policy changeEmpirical – Debiasing street-level bureaucrats (SLBs).
ScopeBPP and BPA scholarshipThe role of heuristics in social interactions and information processing at the frontlineRandomised control trials in BPPMethodology for BI teams’ practiceNudge theoryFocus on BITs and networks in the western world in the last 15 yearsKorean local governmentBureaucrats in local government

An interdisciplinary research agenda for advanced BPP

Ewert’s and Loer’s (2020) contribution seeks to widen the disciplinary and intellectual foundations of behaviourally-informed policies by focusing on the use of behavioural insights beyond behavioural economics and psychology. Undoubtedly, economists (for example, Thaler, Shafir) and psychologists (for example, Kahneman, Tversky) have laid the foundation of today’s behavioural policy interventions and tools such as heuristics, biases, defaults and choice architectures. However, Ewert and Loer perceive the current use of behavioural insights as a starting point for a maturing process of BPP rather than an endpoint. In order to advance the disciplinary footing of BPP, they systematically review the existing literature on state-of-the art behavioural policies and combine their review with a peer survey and expertise from the field (Scoping review, Peer-survey and Expertise, SPE). In contrast to other scoping reviews in the field (Szaszi et al, 2018; Van Deun et al, 2018; Nagtegaal et al, 2019), Ewert and Loer explore the role that a broader concept of behavioural insights can play within behavioural policy. Such a broader view savours different approaches that social sciences offer with regard to behaviour and decision-making processes. Results suggest a more prominent role for behavioural insights from disciplines such as ethnography, human geography and sociology that are based on pluralistic (that is, quantitative and qualitative) methods and approaches (for example, social practice theory) in behavioural policymaking. Hence, rather than being a shorthand for ‘nudging individual behaviour change’, the authors’ notion of advanced BPP could be defined as an ‘interdisciplinary, multi-methodological and reflexive policy approach to be applied for multiple purposes throughout the policy process’. As stated, a more radical use of behavioural insights is better suited to focus on complex policy problems; moreover, advanced BPPs contains a reflexive element by focusing on policymakers’ and government units’ individual and collective behaviour – a perspective that is gaining relevance only recently.

Capitalising on behavioural insights for advancing theory in public administration

Moseley and Thomann (2020) shed light on BPA’s untapped potential to explain street-level behaviour, that is, the behaviour of policy implementers and professionals and its direct implications for policy outcomes. For that purpose, authors investigate street-level bureaucrats’ interactions with and decisions about clients. While acknowledging that public administration scholars have recently started to take ‘human factors’ more seriously into account (Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017; Battaglio et al, 2019), Moseley and Thomann argue that the full potential of behavioural insights to explain street-level behaviour has not yet been exploited. To fill this gap, they theorise how different biases and heuristics may explain the behaviour of policy implementers during the process of frontline policy delivery. Hence, Moseley and Thomann develop an explanatory behavioural framework consisting of 11 testable propositions to examine how heuristics and biases could influence street-level behaviour, relating to social interaction with clients and information processing. Accordingly, street-level bureaucrats’ behaviour that leads to certain policy outcomes is affected by the (perceived) attributes of clients (that is, clients’ identity), attributes of themselves (for example, their emotions and communication skills) and the way relevant information is framed and presented to them. Moseley and Thomann acknowledge that the use of heuristics is inevitable and often beneficial in policy implementation, for example, by fostering empathy for clients. However, they identify two situations in which systematic bias in frontline workers’ behaviour leads to adverse social outcomes and requires de-biasing. Concretely, bias can lead to social inequities, or to inefficient or ineffective policy delivery. Understanding the cognitive reasons for such outcomes, they argue, paves the way for theoretical progress in street-level bureaucracy research.

Reflecting and improving on practices and methodologies

Cotterill et al (2020) suggest the adoption of reporting standards for researchers conducting BPP intervention studies. Indeed, since behavioural policymakers, as Straßheim and Beck (2019: 8) commented, ‘share little uniform standards’ so far, the reliability and reproducibility of behavioural research has to be improved. Against that background, Cotterill et al’s contribution asks from a methodological perspective whether the use of existing reporting standards in BPP research can improve the robustness of the BPP evidence base, improving the generalisability of the findings. Authors answer this question in three parts: first, they re-examine existing reporting standards for research from a behavioural study lens. As argued, an increased use of templates, checklists and taxonomies would add rigour to the reporting of behavioural interventions. Cotterill et al indicate that, in contrast to the current practice, effective reporting requires a special emphasis on the respective origin of an intervention, its stage of development and whether the intervention is a new idea or a roll-out of an existing intervention. Second, authors identify the need for a combined tool – incorporating items of several sources – to guide the design and reporting of randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that represent a key – but often criticised – characteristic of behavioural policy research (Delaney, 2018). Third, a three-step-process, that is, reporting interventions, planning trials and reporting trials, is suggested for the future practice of BPP research.

In a similar vein, Ball and Head’s (2020) contribution focuses on the day-to-day practices of behavioural policymaking by investigating how ‘behavioural insights’ were adapted in terms of, both ‘formal narratives and in operational practices’ in Australia. Like other country case studies of BPP (John, 2018; Pykett, 2019; Whitehead et al, 2020), authors present a nuanced picture of BITs’ staff members’ working routines such as scoping of problems, the application of research methods and its implications. Based on an ethnographic study and interviews with members of three Australian BITs, Ball and Head’s findings demonstrate RCTs’ pivotal role in behaviourally-informed policy experimentation. Accordingly, RCTs are promoted as the most innovative and effective method to renew government policy across Australia’s BITs. However, RCTs’ role as unchallenged gold standard for the practice of behavioural research may change over time since there is a growing awareness to potential constraints and shortcomings of RCTs. In line with recent research (Lepenies and Małecka, 2019; Ball and Feitsma, 2020), Ball and Head criticise RCTs’ a priori limitation of research questions and research designs and its in-built ignorance towards the value of experience-based knowledge and deliberative approaches. Consequently, authors conclude that ‘while an initial focus on rigorous empirical research helped BI teams establish themselves in policy making, strict adherence may represent a risk to their long-term growth and relevance’.

Entwistle’s (2020) contribution enhances nudge theory by providing fresh answers to a recurrently asked question in BPP: why do nudges fail? (Willis, 2013; Sunstein, 2017). Assuming that a ‘bewildering variety of different thought processes may influence the way in which people respond to nudges’, Entwistle identifies fatalism as a, so far, overlooked decision-making bias that prevents the success of nudge-like behavioural interventions. Based on a literature review the author explains how three specific types of fatalism – passive, protective and pathological fatalism – may lead to ‘dysfunctions of passivity, suggestibility and reactance’. Thereby, a persistently fatalistic mindset is rooted in the culminated effect of specific values, structures and institutions within a given society. As argued, each type of fatalism systematically counteracts nudges’ actual intentions although to quite different extents. Entwistle discusses different options for how behavioural policymakers could react to this dilemma such as a need for ‘transparent policy interventions’ or ‘bespoke information crafted to fit the situated analysis of risk and mitigation’. While the author considers it generally possible that the causes of fatalism could be eliminated, he also reminds policymakers to respect ‘fatalist thinking and deciding not to nudge’.

Understanding the success and impact of BPP on policy practice

Straßheim (2020) adds to the critical examination of the BPP movement (see for an overview: Whitehead et al, 2019) by scrutinising the global expansion and the impact of behavioural expert networks. With his article, he hopes to contribute to explanations of how policy collectives influence policymaking, gain authority and change the shape of governance. His article pays close attention to the multiple and dynamic relations between epistemic communities, that is, collectives vested with expert knowledge searching for solutions for policy problems, and instrument constituencies (Voß and Simons, 2014; Béland and Howlett, 2016), that is, collectives of diverse actors providing already existing ‘solutions chasing problems’. He focuses on the BPP movement as a puzzling case that seems to be oscillating between these two forms of collective agency. His main assumption is that the BPP movement shifted from a belief-based mode to a practice-based mode in which the production, evaluation and diffusion of behavioral instruments became the main point of reference. Since 2014 this ‘agency shift’ gradually happened when the epistemic community that formed the original core undermined itself by successfully translating behavioral knowledge into highly different contexts. Instead of a consensual belief system, a rapidly growing instrument constituency took over that derives its influence from RCTs as highly effective and self-sustaining methods of scientific and political authorisation (see also the contribution by Ball and Head in this themed issue). Today, the principled beliefs and notions of behavioural professionals are highly divergent, Straßheim argues. While some may search for new ways of combining ‘citizen-centred’ policies with behavioural tools, others are proposing to overcome the biases of democratic systems by a behaviour-informed ‘rule of the knowledgeable’ (Brennan, 2016). Straßheim concludes that globally active experts should be well aware of the fact that the policies they are proposing might develop a political life of their own.

A behavioural perspective on bureaucrats and public organisations

BPA studies that empirically focus on the behaviour of bureaucrats are an exception, despite growing evidence presented in outlets such as the Journal of Behavioural Public Administration. Lee and Park’s (2020) contribution enhances this perspective by studying policy implementers’ actions within a crucial time: when newly-elected politicians are taking office. Based on a survey experiment in provincial and municipal governments in South Korea, authors explore bureaucrats’ intentions to implement their political principals’ policy change. They shed light on some important factors that may affect the extent to which local civil servants are likely to implement their governors’ or mayors’ policy change. First, Lee and Park find that local bureaucrats are more willing to implement their agency heads’ policy change when their own policy views are shared by the agency heads. That is, when bureaucrats’ values and norms are congruent rather than incongruent with those of agency heads, the former’s compliance is more likely to occur in implementation. Moreover, Lee and Park also reveal that the degree to which bureaucrats are willing to execute the principals’ policy change is not consistent but varies across local agencies. Specifically, the implementation of such policy change is more likely when bureaucrats perceive higher levels of discretion within the organisation.

Visintin et al’s (2020) contribution also investigates street-level bureaucrats’ behaviour from an empirical angle. More specifically, the authors’ research focus is directed to ‘debiasing strategies’ that may be a leverage to overcome bureaucrats’ bounded rationality and cognitive biases and therewith change their working routines. In order to research whether thought-provoking nudges can ‘encourage street-level bureaucrats to use their discretionary power and make meaningful decisions’ Visintin et al conducted a field experiment with in-service street-level bureaucrats implementing Switzerland’s disability insurance policy. Thereby, the authors tested whether System 2 nudges, operating also under the term ‘nudge plus’ (Banerjee and John, 2020) and stimulating thinking rather than exploiting unconscious behaviour, have an effect on the policy effectiveness of street-level bureaucrats’ implementation decisions. As findings reveal, bureaucrats’ decision-making behaviour could be debiased by behavioural interventions that pay specific attention to vulnerability processes along the life-course of disability insurance policy’s beneficiaries. As concluded, if thought-provoking nudges ‘are supported by a favourable policy and organisational environment in order to become part and parcel of the civil servants’ habits’, they might have an impact on the ‘humanisation of [insurance] beneficiaries’ that in turn lead to more effective policy decisions by street-level bureaucrats.

After having presented the key insights of the eight contributions to our themed issue we now turn to their broader implications for behavioural policymaking and implementation. Therefore, we discuss the specific social outcomes emanating from the studied behavioural approaches in the next section.

Lessons for behavioural public policy and administration

As suggested by the behavioural model of the policy process (see Figure 1), the impact of behavioural interventions unfolds beyond the micro level. In aggregate, individual actions influenced by behavioural policies produce relevant social outcomes at the meso and macro level. Significantly, these social outcomes have implications of greater scale than individual effects of behavioural approaches. Seen this way, behavioural approaches have political and societal consequences: rather than causing merely individual behaviour change at the micro level, behavioural policies make a difference at the meso and macro level by altering people’s collective perceptions of social reality. If behavioural policies are designed and applied they always have to be understood as a result of political processes which include the influence powerful interests and ideological frames. Even if behavioural policies are presented as a form of ‘evidence-based policymaking’ the evidence production and frame is political. These insights advance the academic debate on behavioural policymaking. They contribute to the closing of the ‘great schism’ (Moynihan, 2018) between micro and macro policies (Roberts, 2020) by adding social value and political embeddedness to the varieties of behavioural practices. Applied to the studies of behavioural policies compiled in this themed issue, a number of social outcomes at the supra-individual level can be identified (see Table 1). As argued, these outcomes offer general lessons for behavioural research and policymaking.

Ewert and Loer (2020) suggest for a multi-disciplinary and multi-methodological concept of BPP based on a new methodological approach that combines a scoping review with peer survey and systematic use of research experience. Accordingly, advanced BPP bears the potential for policymakers to move beyond nudging individual behaviour by to taking the social and political embeddedness of behaviours and into account. Defined this way, behavioural insights could be utilised to inform regulative policies and to address policy issues characterised by complex problem structures. If implemented into practice, such a broad understanding of behavioural policymaking would change the term’s normative orientation quite fundamentally. Each and every act of ‘advanced’ BPP (see also Ewert, 2020), that is, behaviourally-informed tax reforms or experiments of ‘behavioural government’ (BIT, 2018), contributes to social reality and its collective perception. As a result, the utilisation of behavioural insights may change from a tool to nudge individual behaviour towards a multiple purpose approach that includes the reassessment of policymaking itself.

Moseley’s and Thomann’s (2020) contribution significantly advances our conceptual thinking of public administration by theorising street-level bureaucracy and service delivery from a behavioural lens. Their framework allows us to understand how social interactions and information processing by street-level bureaucrats at the frontline translate into broader social outcomes. Accordingly, improved problem-solving capacities at the operational side of the political systems are one possible social outcome. At the meso level, behavioural insights, if frequently applied to the internal workflows of public administrations and government agencies, can contribute to accountability in and the reform of public organisations and enhance policymaking capacities. At the macro level, bias in street-level behaviour can also result in adverse social outcomes such as social inequity or inefficient policy delivery. Moreover, Moseley and Thomann’s (2020) theoretical framework enriches our understanding of how frontline workers exercise their accountabilities in relation with clients and peers. Taken together, these social outcomes may build up the cornerstones of a ‘behaviourally-informed policy environment’ that facilitates ‘better’ regulation, organisational design, public management and implementation.

The lesson to be learned from Cotterill et al’s (2020) advancement of BPP – that is, the adoption of reporting standards – seems clear: the quality of behaviourally-informed evidence emanating from RCTs in BPP has to become more reliable and easily verifiable. Detailed reporting of BPP interventions using the Template for Intervention Description and Replication (TIDieR) checklist and the Behaviour Change Technique Taxonomy would make explicit the social facts and conditions of individual action which inform the context in which the intervention was developed and implemented, allowing a deeper understanding of the rationale for the intervention and the conditions in which it has been tested. If behavioural experiments were all subject to the same reporting standards, the quality of evidence and the overall social outcome of behavioural experiments would be significantly strengthened. This could contribute to the preclusion of ‘antisocial effects’ triggered by RCTs, for example, the discrimination of target groups in terms of study design (Bonell et al, 2006). In this sense, the systematic use of reporting standards for RCTs would facilitate behavioural policies that are more socially balanced and sensitive towards study participants’ identities.

Ball and Head’s (2020) contribution presents a rather mixed picture concerning the adaption of behavioural insights into Australian government practices. The same also holds true for the social outcome to be drawn from their study. The authors identify a strong preference towards RCTs among Australia’s BITs staff. Due to this methodological monism, being a recurrent objection against the utilisation of behavioural insights (Spotswood and Marsh, 2016), the authors predict a loss of importance for BITs that lack the agility to respond to more complex policy problems. However, in line with Ewert’s and Loer’s (2020) suggestion, such a potentially negative social outcome of BPP could be avoided through multi-methodological and multi-disciplinary behavioural practices that are better suited to ensure BITs’ long-term growth and relevance.

The social outcomes emanating from the relation of fatalistic mindsets and nudges, as described in Entwistle’s (2020) contribution, could be summarised as the tendency for many people to ‘ignore authoritative advice’ and ‘dysfunctional public service bureaucracies’. Fatalism, perceived as policy-takers’ possible response towards nudges, requires special consideration in the phase of policy design. If fatalism remains unaddressed, behavioural interventions are likely to have a negative impact on the functioning of policymaking. Analysing the varieties of fatalism may also lead to more comprehensive and integrated policy strategies that combine different kinds of policy approaches and instruments and hence are more appropriate to reach behaviour change.

Straßheim’s (2020) investigation of the global BPP movement focuses on mechanisms of change at the meso level of boundary-crossing expert configurations. Aiming at getting a better theoretical understanding of collective agency, he shows how shifts between epistemic communities and instrument constituencies influence the ways BPP is practised, gains authority and changes the shape of governance across multiple levels. Thus, studying the ways expert collectives are constituted, composed and transformed provides insights into the varieties of behavioural governance under the conditions of inter- and transnational dynamics.

The take-away message from Lee’s and Park’s (2020) empirical study concerns the likelihood of policy change. As revealed, making this social outcome happen requires behavioural interventions to be aligned with street-level bureaucrats’ values and motivations. Hence, actual policy change depends on ‘the congruence of policy views in politician–bureaucrat relationships and the degree of discretion bureaucrats perceive within the organisation’. However, the reverse conclusion is also true: if street-level bureaucrats’ behavioural cues are disregarded or misunderstood, policy administrators’ behaviour could, speaking in the words of Moseley and Thomann (2020), also lead to ‘inefficient policies and ineffective policy delivery’. Lee’s and Park’s contribution reminds us of the importance of carefully designed BPA approaches (see also Dudley and Xie, 2020) which, rather than adopting an instrumental view, recognise not only the role of policy bureaucrats but also their attitudes, needs and motivations for seeking policy change.

Finally, Visintin et al’s (2020) contribution adds to our empirical knowledge according to which street-level bureaucrats’ aggregated actions determine the shape and form of policy outcomes. Hence, a debiasing of street-level bureaucrats’ decisions through thought-provoking nudges may increase the possibility of positive social outcomes. BPA interventions could facilitate accurate implementation decisions, for example, by evoking a ‘life-course and vulnerability mindset’. As argued, only if the latter is established, more favourable social outcomes of public administration are within the realms of possibility. In this respect, increased empathy by street-level bureaucrats and a more human perspective of welfare recipients are deemed most relevant.

In summary, the lessons to be learned from BPP and BPA research are by no means restricted to the micro level. Instead, these micro-level processes cause social outcomes at the meso (that is, organisations and administrations) and macro level (that is, social structure and political system) and they also respond to social and political factors at these levels. Whether these social outcomes are beneficial or rather harmful is, not least, an issue of policy design and implementation. In this regard, behavioural research can offer very valuable insights.

Limitations and avenues for future research

Establishing a framework to explain the impact of behavioural approaches beyond the micro level significantly advances BPP/BPA scholarship. The latter has been recurrently criticised for its in-built ignorance towards the social and structural dimensions of policy behavioural interventions (Jones et al, 2013; Leggett, 2014). However, despite its potential to mitigate this shortcoming, the variety of social outcomes of behavioural policymaking discussed in this article has to be assessed within its respective scope and context.

Thus, Ewert and Loer’s (2020) results from SPE according to which BPP is a multimethodological and multidisciplinary approach for multiple purposes need further empirical validation. For example, more international and comparative studies investigating the plurality of BPP practices are required. Likewise, little is known so far whether other disciplines beyond behavioural economics and psychology are actually willing to actively contribute to behavioural policymaking. After all, the latter represents still a contested concept within social sciences (Shove, 2010; Baum and Fisher, 2014). Likewise, Moseley and Thomann’s (2020) framework is restricted to the role of heuristics and biases in social interactions and information processing at the frontline of policy delivery. Ideally, its explanatory power has to be empirically investigated based on mixed method approaches in different policy administration settings. The same holds true for the assumed positive impact of reporting standards for RCTs in BPP: Cotterill et al’s (2020) faith in standardised templates and guidelines has to be underpinned by solid evidence. Moreover, the applied methodology for BITs’ practice needs to be studied more systematically from a comparative perspective (see as a start: Ball and Feitsma, 2020). In this respect, Ball and Head’s (2020) conclusion – that is, RCTs are a barrier for the long-term development of BPP despite its current dominance – represents an interesting hypothesis to be tested in future research. The same holds true for Entwistle’s (2020) theoretical assumptions on fatalism’s corrosive effects on nudges. While there are good reasons to believe that different types of fatalism counteract or subvert nudges, more empirical evidence is required that is specifically related to the work on BITs and the whole spectrum of behavioural interventions. Also, Straßheim’s (2020) findings on collective agency within behavioural policymaking have to be assessed against the very broad scope of emerging BITs and behavioural networks in the western world. To obtain a more nuanced picture of the relationship between epistemic communities and instrument constituencies, comparative case studies are necessary. The scope of the social outcomes resulting from BPA approaches studied by Lee and Park (2020) and Visintin et al (2020) is limited to the local government in South Korea and a specific sector of Swiss welfare policy. While both studies enhance our still relatively scarce knowledge on the empirical impact of BPA interventions, cross-sectorial studies and international comparisons are required to produce more generalisable and robust results. Finally, it is worth pointing to a question that affects all BPP-related contributions compiled in this themed issue: does nuanced frameworks of behavioural policymaking sufficiently take citizens’ perspectives into account? While Entwistle’s (2020) contribution identifies fatalistic mindsets as a barrier to behavioural interventions, the impact of citizens’ very heterogenous cognitive resources (Christensen et al, 2020) and multi-faceted social identities (Mols et al, 2015) on behavioural policymaking requires empirical investigation too.

Conclusions

Public policy and administration have witnessed a behavioural turn within the last decade. However, despite quickly evolving paradigms such as BPP and BPA, the utilisation of behavioural insights in policymaking requires further conceptual and methodological refinement and robust empirical evidence (Moynihan, 2018). In this introduction to our themed issue, we situated behavioural approaches within a broader tradition of methodological individualism in social sciences and suggested a level-spanning behavioural model of the policy process. Accordingly, conditions at the macro and meso level affect individual conditions for action at the micro level that, in aggregate, produce social outcomes at the macro level – which in turn creates new social facts. Applied to the findings from the contributions to this themed issue, the model enables us to draw more substantial lessons from behavioural research that move beyond the verification individual behaviour change (Brown, 2012; Hansen, 2018; Ewert, 2020; Leggett, 2014). If based on a broad conceptual design and methodological pluralism, behavioural policies bear the potential to better understand, investigate and shape social outcomes and its collective perception (Grimmelikhuijsen et al, 2017; Sanders et al, 2018; Battaglio et al, 2019; Bhanot and Linos 2020). Future research needs to study boundary-crossing relations and interactions in the context of behavioural policymaking more rigorously from an international comparative and cross-sectorial perspective. The behavioural model that we present here is meant to contribute to enable researchers and policymakers to make this step.

Acknowledgement

Authors would like thank all contributors to the themed issue, the editors of Policy & Politics, and two anonymous reviewers of this introduction.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Ewert, B. and Loer, K. (2020) Advancing behavioural public policies: in pursuit of a more comprehensive concept, Policy & Politics, 00(00): 123, in this themed issue, doi: 10.1332/030557320X15907721287475.

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  • 1 Fulda University of Applied Sciences, Germany
  • | 2 Osnabrück University of Applied Sciences, Germany
  • | 3 University of Exeter, UK

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