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Martin Roseveare and a 1940s nudge

2 May 2013
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Set up in 2010, and more commonly referred to as the ‘Nudge’ Unit, the Behavioural Insight Team aims to apply an understanding of behavioural economics to contemporary policy making.

Their approach is famously inspired by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. The book put forward an argument in favour of ‘libertarian paternalism’ (p. 5) by ‘self consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better’ (p. 6).

The thirteen-member Behavioural Insight Team has tended to remain behind the scenes.  In the last two days, however, it has become a lot more visible. It first came under stringent criticism for its use of ‘bogus psychometric tests’ for jobseekers. And then it was announced that it was to be spun out into a ‘profit-making mutual’.

The Behavioural Insight Team’s effectiveness has now become a minor point of debate. But how radical is its approach?

A couple of week’s ago I spoke at a Political History Network seminar and argued that you can find an interesting precedent to the use of behavioural economics in the government’s 1946 decision to ration bread. In short, I argued that whilst the scheme itself was much more hands on, the publicity campaigns that preceded bread rationing were an obvious attempt to nudge the public into making certain decisions.

Martin Roseveare, the civil servant brought in to the Ministry of Food to oversee the scheme, described his approach as ‘target rationing’. An approach whereby the public would be encouraged to amend their behaviour and sub-consciously ration themselves. Like Thaler and Sunstein, Roseveare recognised that this was all about altering the consumer’s ‘choice architecture’ through clever publicity.

Unfortunately for this post, it is difficult to measure the impact of this, because his scheme was never carried out in full (the British government took the unprecedented decision to ration bread instead).

Nor, it should be said, was Roseveare ‘spun out’. He was merely given a knighthood and sent back to his day job as the Chief Inspector of Schools.

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