In the budget last week the Government of Ontario announced that it was creating a Centre of Excellence for Evidence-Based Decision Making Support that will emphasize « using evidence to inform choices and lead change in critical public services ». The new Centre will also be supported by a « Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) ».

Much could and should be said about the decision to emphasize evidence-based policy making. Suffice to say that I am skeptical.

As for the announcement of a behavioural insights unit, as many of you will know, this is a belated echo of the Behavioural Insights Team which began as part of the British government and is now a private company. But it is precisely because the Government of Ontario is a relative latecomer into the world of ‘nudge’ that it can learn from the experience of others. A good place to start is a recent blog post by Frank Mols on the limits of what behavioural approaches can accomplish. Based on a recently published academic paper, Mols argues the kinds of tools that are encouraged by nudge-related approaches do not necessarily bring about lasting behaviour change. He is also concerned about the ethical problems associated with nudge-type techniques and notes that we now have examples of cases when nudges backfire. He makes the case for more lasting behavior change that involves social identity change and norm internalisation. In other words, to really achieve lasting policy and program change governments need to engage with people, not as ”œindividual cognitive misers”, but as members of groups ”œwhose norms they internalise and enact”.

Here is hoping that the Government of Ontario will benefit from the fact that is coming into the game relatively late and would do well to understand both what nudge-type techniques can do but also what they cannot.

Patrick Fafard is the associate director of the Global Strategy Lab and a full professor in the Graduate School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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