Digital Nudge - Eddie Copeland

Tech Policy

People who liked Nudge also liked Digital Nudge

23 Sep , 2015  

Different policy instruments can sometimes achieve more when combined than they can apart. This may be true of behavioural insights (“Nudge”) and digital government.

The idea of using behavioural psychology techniques to influence citizens’ decision making is well known in policymaking circles. The concept was outlined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2009 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. It argues that, given the right prompts or incentives, people can be “nudged” into changing their habits in a desired direction, such as eating more healthily, paying tax on time or saving for a pension. This has already gone beyond mere theory. In 2010 the UK government created the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), whose achievements have been inspiringly documented in David Halpern’s book Inside the Nudge Unit.

Meanwhile, governments from the UK to Australia are trying to make their administrations and public services more efficient and accessible by using digital tools such as websites and apps. As they work on these “digital government” initiatives, policymakers should consider whether they could incorporate nudge techniques to increase their effectiveness; to create what we might call “Digital Nudge”.


Interested in how human behaviour is affected by computer screens?
I highly recommend The Smarter Screen by Shlomo Benartzi.


Digital Government Goes EAST

Many nudge prompts are, after all, based on providing certain information to a person – something that technology is well suited to deliver. More specifically, many nudge prompts follow the acronym EAST: making a desired action Easy (removing barriers and friction), Attractive (standing out from other options), Social (using the power of peer pressure and people’s tendency to conform to social norms), and Timely (prompting an individual when they are most likely to make a decision). As is shown below, technology has a proven track record of enhancing all these specific qualities.

Easy – Making it easy to complete a certain action is at the heart of good web and app design. Think of how Amazon’s famous “One Click” shopping removes the friction of purchasing an item by removing the need to enter billing, delivery and payment details. Similarly, creating simple, user-centric online transactions (such as paying tax or applying for a driving licence) is central to the philosophy of digital government. Policymakers should deliberately use that approach to remove the friction from completing desirable actions. For example, in the UK twelve million doctors’ appointments are wasted each year when patients fail to turn up, costing in excess of £162 million per annum. Making it easy for a patient to confirm or cancel their appointment by asking them to actively reply ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to an SMS or app notification sent to them the day before could help save £millions.

An action can also be made easy by making it the default choice. The majority of people tend to stick with default options, whether it be the ringtone on their smartphone or their enrollment in a pension scheme. (Applying exactly that logic, from October 2015 all UK employees will automatically be opted-in to a workplace pension scheme.) The only limitation with setting defaults is that what is best for one person may not be right for another. Halpern gives the example of laying out food options in a canteen. For most people it would be best to nudge them to eat healthier options by placing fruit and salads at the front of the counter. Yet for someone with more specific dietary requirements, it may be better to preference other menu choices that cater to their needs. This is where technology provides a real advantage. We are all familiar with how Google uses data to deliver a personalised experience based on a user’s age, interests, location and past behaviour. In the right circumstances, government may be able to use similar techniques to personalise default settings based on a person’s particular requirements.

Attractive – Technology companies are masters at finding ways to maintain a person’s engagement in a process by making it attractive. For instance, Zynga (creator of Farmville) dynamically changes the game to keep users engaged when it looks like they may be losing interest. An algorithm monitors each user’s playing habits and – if needed – provides them with an incentive to stay, such as giving them a free token for the next level. Similar gamification techniques are used by app designers to keep people exercising, dieting, learning languages, and staying off drink or cigarettes.

Adopting these principles could be hugely beneficial for government services where it is cheaper to keep as many citizens as possible engaged in mainstream services rather than requiring bespoke support. For example, in 2011 it was estimated that young people who are not in education, employment or training (NEETS) cost the UK an average of £56,000 up to the age of retirement (through benefit payments, lost tax revenue and healthcare and criminal justice costs). If government could learn from companies like Zynga and use digital nudge to maintain engagement in education or training, it may be possible to reduce the number of NEETs, saving money and providing significantly better outcomes for the young people concerned.

Social – It hardly needs stating that technology can be social; some of the most well known tech giants are social networks. Of course, there are real challenges with using social media to influence behaviour in a specific way. Platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are notorious for exaggerating people’s activities, views and traits. However, there are other techniques used by technology companies that make use of social norms. Amazon’s famous “Customers who bought X also bought Y” is just one of hundreds of examples that could be given. Traditional nudge techniques can only do this in a very generalised way, for example, including the line “9 out of 10 people pay their tax on time” in tax collection letters. Yet social nudge prompts tend to work more effectively when they focus on a smaller peer group to whom a user can relate, i.e. “the majority of people like you did X…” . With that in mind, government could use digital nudge to make more powerful and personalised social prompts by informing people of the actions of their peers.

Timely – Finally, technology in general, and smartphones in particular, are perfect for delivering timely prompts. Think of the way apps use push notifications, or how Google Now, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana increasingly try to predict what a person might need and proactively suggest it when the user may find it most helpful. Government could likewise use digital nudge to prompt citizens in a timely fashion to do everything from completing a tax return on time to dropping off their glass bottles at a bottle bank when it is likely to be most convenient for them. In the former case, this might be when they are already completing a separate transaction online; for the latter, when their phone’s GPS suggests they they are physically near a recycling centre.

The right choice?

Digital tools offer a powerful channel for policymakers to use and enhance nudge prompts. In turn, nudge prompts offer the potential to increase the effectiveness of digital government projects. There is, of course, a much bigger question about when it would be right to use digital nudge techniques. It must, of course, be done ethically, transparently and with robust oversight.

However, to paraphrase Halpern, in cases where government has to take some action, present a choice or design a new online form, however they do it will – deliberately or not – influence citizens’ decision making. There is no neutral choice. In that case, government might as well work to maximise the most positive outcome. Harnessing the best elements of digital nudge might well be the way to achieve that.

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