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Using behavioural insights to foster benign public norms and good governance

Dieter Zinnbauer shares some reflections on a fascinating brainstorm workshop.

Nudging is all the rage at the moment, and related research carried out by the likes of the UK Behavioural Insights Team or ideas42 provide fascinating new insights on how to design policies that more effectively take into account issues of limited bandwidth, biases and complexity in cognition or challenges related to social norms and collective action. So what is the potential of bringing this instrumentarium to bear on issues related to governance? A few weeks ago I had the great privilege to attend a workshop on that very topic, organized by Innovations for Successful Societies an extremely interesting research outfit at Princeton specialized on case studies of reforms that work.

Karla Hoff, lead author of this year’s World Development Report kicked us off, making a compelling case of how moving beyond simplistic notions of rational behaviour can dramatically enhance development outcomes in health, sanitation, education etc. by improving practices related to personal hygiene, saving patterns and or parenting behaviour. Saugato Datta of ideas42 and Elizabeth Linos of the Behavioral Insights Team added more remarkable evidence to demonstrate how rather small changes in framing policy interventions or building in commitment mechanisms can help improve anything from subsistence farming productivity to tax compliance or re-entry into the labour force.

How does all this relate to corruption and good governance? Here four first impressions – three uppers and one downer.

First, some of the nudges and design interventions listed might – perhaps most often unintentionally – help route around or partially compensate for some types of corruption that render pubic services dysfunctional. Raising educational attainment via better parenting, for example, might make up to some degree for poor quality education stymied by corruption. Improving household savings behaviour or helping people register for the public water mains can help them avoid corrupt money lenders or water lords.

Second, other such interventions, for example the ones that make government services more easily accessible and understandable might in the medium term help raise trust in and expectations for government performance, thus fostering the type of engaged, critically-constructive citizenry that is considered essential to keep governments honest in the long run.

Third, the most immediate potential for behavioural insights to help tackle corruption however seems to unfold when such policy interventions seek to directly empower and encourage people to speak up, assert their rights and join up with others to demand accountability. Karla Hoff, for example, referenced an interesting case study from Kenya where simple stickers in buses that encouraged people to speak up against reckless driving helped to significantly bring down accident numbers. This premise of simple interventions to empower and mobilise people in a very targeted way in very specific contexts and situations when they may be particularly vulnerable to be taken advantage of is at the core of my own idea of ambient accountability that I presented at the meeting. People are often unaware of their entitlements in a specific service context, intimidated when dealing with high-status officials and under the false impression that they are alone with their grievances, while all their peers are prepared to give in to or even actively play along with the corrupt behaviour. Related interventions, from urban planning to architecture, from service design to information interventions can help shake up self-fulfilling expectations, unsettle entrenched power relations and also lay the foundations for collective action. I have documented ample empirics about related cases here.

Finally, the downer: One caveat, when looking at the relationship between nudging and corruption is that many applications of nudges seem to be rather oblivious to the power, interest and corruption configurations that apply to a specific situation and that may for the time of the experiment have been only temporarily suspended due to the outside attention and support for marginalized beneficiaries that these experiments signal and generate. Your nudge for the disadvantaged might destroy my corrupt business model. People may not have been able to connect to the local water mains because powerful private water vendors might have colluded with public officials to keep them hooked to high-margin private vendors and who knows how these collusive rackets might seek to reassert their abusive powers once the development researchers and workers have moved on and the intervention to assist people in filling out the application forms has been mainstreamed into the local bureaucracy.

Bring power back in is by no means meant to question the power and potential of nudges, yet it allows for unpacking some aspects of the Hawthorne effect (why things seem to work when they are observed) raised as a concern during the workshop by Jeff Hammer. And a focus on power and politics could also contribute to tackling issues around mainstreaming and sustainability – one of the central issues during the workshop - in more tactical ways.

Thinking about nudges, design and other behavioural interventions stands to greatly and creatively enrich the toolbox for fostering benign public norms and tackling corruption. And it also creates much needed awareness about how such interventions may be deployed by more sinister actors to actively manipulate or disempower. In a nutshell: design and taking behavioural insights seriously can matters tremendously and make a big difference. What’s more, the absence of good design is not no design, but bad design or worse – deliberately manipulative design, which then takes us into a completely different but highly interesting and relevant realm of very different type of corruptions related to undue influence,  policy capture or institutional corruption.

In short, the energizing discussion and growing pool of empirics about nudges and behaviour insights and how they relate to issues of governance and corruption is highly topical and relevant. Thanks to ISS for launching us right into this important topic.

Author : Dieter Zinnbauer

24 Mar 2015


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