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‘Nudge squad’


Albert Brandford

‘Nudge squad’

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AMIDST THE NATIONAL CONVERSATION on productivity in the workforce, there may be a new and unconventional approach that could be added to the plethora of suggestions for changing individual behaviour and improving the efficacy of Government policies and programmes.
Just recently, there was a new thrust from Government to raise the quality  of human resources management professionals – in collaboration with the University of the West Indies (UWI) – with the aim, it was stated, of helping them motivate workers without exploiting them.
The disclosure was made during  the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the  UWI and the Human Resource Management Association of Barbados (HRMAB), which officials said  would help the university to move  from the solely theoretical to the practical side of human  resource management.
“Questions such as recruitment and selection; why workers are unproductive – the only way you can know is if you go down to Bridgetown and into the corporate boardrooms of organizations,” said Dr Philmore Alleyne, head  of the Department of Management Studies at UWI.
The issue of worker productivity and how to lift their levels is not unique to Barbados and has been occupying some of the best minds in larger, more developed countries.
Indeed, the search also extends into the arena of government policies where research is taking place into ways to design public policies that work better, cost less and help people to achieve their goals.
This new approach is already under way in Britain and is now being proposed by the United States government.
According to some US media, the federal government is hiring what it calls a “Behavioural Insights Team” – a so-called “Nudge Squad” – that will look at ways to subtly influence people’s behaviour, according to a document describing the programme, which its supporters say could make government and society more efficient.
Early stages
“While the programme is still in its early stages,” one television network said, “the White House is already working on such projects with almost a dozen federal departments and agencies, including the Department of Health  and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.”
Quoting from the federal government document describing the programme, the network noted: “Behavioural sciences can be used to help design public policies that work, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals.”
According to the network, the document was emailed by Maya Shankar, a White House senior adviser on social and behavioural sciences, to a university professor with a request that it be distributed to people interested in joining the team.
“The idea is that the team would experiment with various techniques, with the goal of tweaking behaviour  so people do everything from saving more for retirement to saving more  in energy costs.”
The document praises subtle policies to change behaviours that have already been implemented in England which has a “Behavioural Insights Team”.
One British policy concerns how to get late tax filers to pay up.
“Sending letters to late taxpayers that indicated a social norm – i.e. that ‘9 out of 10 people in Britain paid their taxes on time’ – resulted in a 15 per cent increase in response rates over  a three-month period, rolling out  to £30 million of extra annual revenue,” the document reads.
According to the network, such policies – which encourage behaviour subtly rather than outright require it – have come to be known as “nudges” after an influential 2008 book titled Nudge by former Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein and Chicago Booth School of Business professor Richard Thaler popularized the term.
It said the term “nudge” has already been associated with the new programme, as one professor who received Shankar’s email forwarded it to others with the note: ‘Anyone interested in working for the White House in a ‘nudge squad?’ The UK has one and it’s been extraordinarily successful’.
New initiative
Richard Thaler told an online news programme that the new initiative sounds good.
“I don’t know who those people are who would not want such a programme, but they must either be misinformed or misguided,” he said.
“The goal is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government by using scientifically collected evidence to inform policy designs. What is the alternative? The only alternatives I know are hunches, tradition, and ideology (either left or right).”
Asked about the details, Dan Cruz, spokesman for the US General Services Administration (the department which the team will be a part of), said: “As part of the Administration’s ongoing efforts to promote efficiency and savings, GSA is considering adding some expertise from academia in the area of programme efficiency and evaluation under its Performance Improvement Council”.
One of the recommendations in the Stuart Administration’s Barbados Growth and Development Strategy 2013-2020 discussion document is the introduction by April 2014 of the measurement of labour productivity, financial prudence and efficiency.
“If the adoption of productivity is assumed as a national initiative then it is incumbent that there should be renewed synergistic approaches among the Office of Public Sector Reform (SPSR), The Productivity Council and the National Initiative for Service Excellence,” it said.
“Under combined goals, objectives and efforts, the organizations can pursue cultural change and the adoption of performance management practices across the entire Barbados public sector and other spheres of the economy.”
• Albert Brandford is an independent political correspondent. Email [email protected]

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