The Behavioural Insights team, popularly known as the "Nudge Unit", is playing a big role in helping the government formulate its response to coronavirus.
The Nudge Unit was established in the Cabinet Office in 2010 by David Cameron’s government to apply behavioural science to public policy. Now owned partly by the Cabinet Office, by Nesta and by employees, it has operations across the world.
Its chief executive is Dr David Halpern, former director of research at the Institute for Government, who is also the government’s What Works national adviser.
It is called ‘nudge’ after the book by Richard Thaler (who went on to win the Nobel prize in economics) and Cass Sunstein which set out how people are not the rational economic actors beloved of conventional economic theory – but can be influenced by “choice architecture” into making better choices in their own interests.
Nudges mean thinking harder about the way people approach decisions and using those insights to design policy. In 2010, the Institute for Government set out some of those approaches in its MINDSPACE report, which suggests that both the messenger and the message were important and that defaults mattered. It remains the Institute's most downloaded report.
The approach depends a lot on experimentation, and the Nudge Unit has championed wider use of experiments in government.
The Nudge Unit has worked on a wide range of policy areas (detailed on its website) – but early examples included work on prompting people to pay their tax on time, turn up in court, work with Jobcentres to improve outcomes and increasing organ donation.
But the biggest application of 'nudge' in UK policy predates the creation of the unit: the introduction of the default in automatic enrolment for pensions – 10 million people are now enrolled in pensions as a result.
The Nudge Unit is working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care in crafting the government response. The most visible manifestation of its influence to date is in the communication around hand-washing and face touching – in particular the use of “disgust” as an incentive to wash hands and the suggestion of singing Happy Birthday to ensure hands are washed for the requisite 20 seconds.
David Halpern wrote a book about the early days of the nudge unit in 2016 – Inside the Nudge Unit.