The Tories have fallen in love with Nudge theory. But while the veneer of Nudge works well with wonks and the chattering classes, the deeper story of Tory nudge policy in local government is more troubling.
George Osborne set out his theory in a recent article in the Guardian. In it he proposed various nudges on topical issues of concern, announcing his entry to the Plain English awards: “We’ve been engaging with leading experts in this field, including Robert Cialdini, the author of Influence, and Richard Thaler, the co-author of Nudge, to develop policies that will work in a post-bureaucratic age where Labour’s clunking tax and regulation measures have all too often failed.”
Worried about personal debt? Well, we can nudge you away by a cooling off period for seven days on store cards to stop those impulse buys. If memory serves me correctly this is actually a softening of the policies outlined in the ill-fated “Don’t be a Tosser” (with your own money) campaign in 2006, where the Tories actually advocated useful measures – like going to a CAB and speaking to an adviser. No mention here of the largest source of debt – a mortgage (which has plenty of cooling off time, especially with a Home Improvement Pack).
Want more recycling and green goodness? There’s a funky new scheme in Windsor by a US firm called Recyclebank which actually pays you cash to recycle rather than fining you. There’s little mention that such arrangements invariably work in the wealthiest areas for firms such as these to make real profits from contracts with local authorities, or that such contracts are rather expensive in the first place.
Can you reduce your heating bills and save the planet? All energy companies need to do is flag up a flat of the equivalent size to yours as a comparator on monthly bills.
All neat Thick of It Stewart Pearson-esque ‘policy flavours’ for press releases, but little of actual substance, begging the question – if the Conservatives have wholeheartedly embraced this agenda, will our society’s major challenges really be met by thousands of tiny nudges?
Leaving that obvious question to one side, the Tories don’t have to wait to be in power to nudge away – they can do it now.
In Conservative town halls up and down the country, politicians wield substantial powers through fees and charges for hundreds of services set by councils – ideal test beds for behavioural economics of the kind mooted above.
Want to cut down on youth obesity? Lower the charges for football pitches, or offer free swimming? Have a hankering for kids to do more constructive things with their time? Slash the charges for music lessons or after-school clubs. The potential is there.
But Conservative councils are embarking on a conscious policy of sweating fees and charges are hard as possible, rather than raising council tax – giving the gimmicky impression of a ‘freeze’. These are no ordinary rises in fees to cover costs, it’s a political decision: a give-with-the-one-hand-take-with-the-other approach which hits service users in particular, rather than sharing costs.
Flagship Wandsworth council leader Edward Lister advises fellow Tory councillors to “increase charges as far as possible beyond inflation” and that fees should be used on a “trial and error approach” to test just how much residents will bear. This seems, if anything, a nudge not to use council services at all.
A similar theme is developing with Barnet council’s infamous new model which charges residents once for their council tax and then asks them to pay an extra fee to jump the queue if they want a better or faster service for planning signal in nudge theory.
In Hammersmith and Fulham residents’ parking charges have increased by 12.5 per cent, and children’s out-of-hours play service charges have risen by 121 per cent. The minimum increase across all council charges is 5 per cent. Meals-on-wheels prices rose by an incredible 40 per cent – adding £365 to annual food bills for the elderly.
Taken to an extreme, high costs will deter people from using council services. What happens then is that unit costs rise, and one-by-one once popular services are closed on grounds of cost.
So, where does that leave modern Nudge theory in the Conservative Party? From where I’m standing, it all seems like a bit of a nudge away from public services.
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