The White House Office of Nudging | Citizens Against Government Waste

The White House Office of Nudging

The WasteWatcher

There have been a series of news reports of a new project underway in the White House led by Maya Shankar, Senior Advisor for Social & Behavioral Sciences within the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  According to a column written by David Martosko in the U.K.’s Mail OnLine , “her mandate is to supervise the organization of a federal government ‘nudge squad’ that will subtly change the behaviors of bureaucrats – and the rest of us.”  Similar coverage has been found in Fox News and the N.Y. Daily News.

According to Martosko, the bible for advocates of this kind of behavioral interaction is the book, “Nudge – Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.  Mr. Sunstein served as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs within the White House until August 2012.

The Sunday Times (London) says of the book:

Politically this is, at the moment, hot stuff…Obamistas are said to be reading Nudge in an attempt to discover how and when people should be gently maneuvered into doing the right thing.  The planet may depend on this, as may our health and pension prospects.  People can be nudged into saving energy, stopping smoking, and saving more.  Nudging is the new politics.”

Martosko asks a pertinent question, “When does a nudge become a shove?”

Ms. Shankar is described as a 27-year old “wunderkind,” with a Ph.D. in Multi-Sensory Perception, who joined the OSTP in April of this year.  At first blush, her mission seems relatively benign.  She wants to duplicate what UK Prime Minister David Cameron began in 2010, the “Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)”.  This team, according to Shanker, started “a process of rapid, iterative experimentation” that “has successfully identified and tested interventions that will further advance priorities of the British government, while saving the government at least £1 billion within the next five years.”

Looking quickly at the BIT publications that lay out initiatives, some seem like good ideas.  For example, the December 2010 publication discusses how “applying behavioural insight” initiatives lead to “health improvements [that]can be made without resorting to legislation or costly programmes.”  The publication, called a “discussion paper” provides ideas on how to reduce teen pregnancy or smoking cessation, for example.

Shankar discusses how the government is “currently creating a new team that will help build federal capacity to experiment with these approaches” to change people’s actions for the better.  She mentions several projects currently underway such as one that asks unemployed individuals to provide “a concrete plan for immediate implementation regarding how, when, and where they would pursue reemployment efforts.”  This initiative has “led to a 15-20% decrease in their likelihood of claiming unemployment benefits just 13 weeks later.”

Then there is the Save More Tomorrow program that encourages employees to commit in advance to allocating part of future salary increases toward retirement savings. 

Shankar mentions adopting a program from the United Kingdom that helped to increase tax compliance by simply sending letters to late taxpayers indicating “a social norm that ‘9 out of 10 people in Britain paid their taxes on time’ – resulted in a 15 percent increase in response rates over a three-month period, rolling out to £30 million [$46.5 million] of extra annual revenue.”

But reviewing the initiatives, both in the United Kingdom and those underway in the U.S., it seems nudging can slowly develop into a demand.  We all know bureaucracies look for opportunities to do more and using behavioral science techniques would be a green light for some government busybodies to tell you how to lead your life and conduct your personal business.  While saving tax dollars seems like a good idea by implementing some of these programs, one quickly realizes that a lot more tax dollars could be saved if the government just did not get involved in a lot of activities in the first place that later required some sort of behavioral techniques to make them work better.

For example, Cameron’s BIT activities are now engaged in guiding energy use and related activities such as "helping" people to make their homes “more green” or using certain methods to nudge people to give more to charities.

Shankar lauds a program that offered an attic clearance service to people, which “led to a five-fold increase in their subsequent adoption of attic-insulation.”  She does mention that “providing additional government subsidies on attic insulation services had no such effect.”  But the question that should be asked is why should the government care what is in your attic anyway?

The U.K’s BIT program states they are responsible for:

  • encouraging and supporting people to make better choices for themselves
  • considering the application of behavioural science to policy design and delivery
  • advancing behavioural science in public policy
  • championing scientific methodology to bring greater rigour to policy evaluation

No doubt this is the goal of Ms. Shankar and her staff.  But examples abound on how government officials go beyond their original mission of simply suggesting ways to improve our lives and proceed to direct our lives.

We have seen Mayor Bloomberg’s “nanny state” actions with respect to the war on salt and the “Big Gulp.”  Then there was the North Carolina state health inspector that made a child eat a school lunch of chicken nuggets because her sack lunch did not meet federal health guidelines.  Or the on-going war against childhood obesity and how it has encouraged Massachusetts officials to ban foods that are sold outside the regular school lunch program, such as bake sales to raise money for school events.

It comes down to this.  The government is too involved in our daily lives with too many bureaucrats and social scientists nudging and then eventually pushing us to do the right thing for our own good – at least what is good in their eyes.

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