Nudge and beyond: Behavioural science, policy and knowing what works

By Dr. Simon Murphy

I was recently invited by the UK Cabinet Office Behavioral Insights Unit Team to talk at the ‘Nudge and Beyond: Behavioral Science, Policy and Knowing What Works‘ conference that took place in London.

It was an interesting and varied day and included contributions from David Halpern (Director of the Behavioural Insights team) and Richard Thaler, whose work in behavioural economics and the use of ‘nudges‘ seems to have captured the imagination of policy makers. What was encouraging about the day was the focus on the importance of developing evidence based policies and how randomised controlled trials are possible within policy implementation. Videos of the conference presentations are available.

I came away with two main reflections:

1) The first is how policy innovation is determined by individual relationships and advocates close to government rather than any systematic approach to reviews of evidence.

2) The second is that Whitehall is taking tentative steps towards evidence generation through policy trials, something we have been doing for much longer and with more complex policies in Wales. Sometimes I don’t think we make enough of the innovative work we are doing in Wales!

Wales leading the UK

Since 2005, with support from the Welsh Government, we have coordinated a Public Health Improvement Research Network (PHIRN) in Wales as part of DECIPHer. This brings together academics, government researchers, practitioners and policy makers to facilitate policy trials of large scale national initiatives. Despite the accepted systemic obstacles we have been successful in conducting a significant number of rigorous policy trials to establish what works and why. These have included trials of the Primary School Free Healthy Breakfasts Initiative, the National Exercise Referral Scheme, the Strengthening Families Programme and Alcohol and Social Norms in Welsh Universities. The success of PHIRN has led to sister networks being established in Australia and Northern Ireland and offers a model for policy trials across government. We will be running a seminar on our approach as part of the ESRC Festival of Science in November.

Dr Simon Murphy is Senior Research Fellow and theme leader in the areas of Health Promoting Schools and other youth settings at DECIPHer.

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