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My nudge tour of Australia - Professor Peter John

20 September 2013Behavioural Insights Unit


Tagsacademic, bit, nsw, research, speakers, uk

From 16 July to 16 August, I was a visitor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. I am working with Professor Keith Dowding on a project on the policy agenda of the Australian government (as well as matters nudge, I work on public policy).

Professor John speaking at the Behavioural Insights in Action event Sydney August 2013

I never planned my nudge tour of Australia. 

From 16 July to 16 August, I was a visitor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the Australian National University. I am working with Professor Keith Dowding on a project on the policy agenda of the Australian government (as well as matters nudge, I work on public policy). But my fate was cast as I had already dropped a line to Rory Gallagher who heads up the New South Wales Behavioural Insights unit as I know him through the UK Behavioural Insights Team. I had also been in touch with one of my academic contacts in Australia, Andrew Leigh, an experimental economist, now MP for Fraser in the ACT.

My first meeting (when I was feeling rather jetlagged) was with Andrew and explained the particular interest the state governments have in the behavioural economics agenda. Also one of the members of the agendas project, Dr Aaron Martin from the University of Melbourne, is interested in experiments, and he invited me to give a talk at an event called ‘Behaviour Economics and Policy Making’, which was hosted and sponsored by Melbourne School of Government. This took place on July 24 and was attended by civil servants from the Victorian government as well as academics from the university. What I found exciting was that I found a real appetite among policy-makers for doing randomised controlled trials, and after my talk the attendees broke up into tables to scope up potential ideas, many of which I hope get off the ground. I also really enjoyed the event with the Behavioural Insights at the New South Wales Government on August 13 for many of the same reasons, and also their awareness of the state of the art in behaviour change and policy. There is a lot happening in NSW, and it looks like it is going to be tested with more robust methods. I particularly like the way that campaigns to prevent drink driving have turned to social media to get the message home.

Even before I got to Sydney the Commonwealth Government had been in touch. Tony Simovski from the Department of Finance and Deregulation invited me to meet civil servants there.  So on August 9 I discussed behaviour change and experiments, giving my insights into the workings of the Behavioural Insights Team, and answering some probing questions about how behaviour change policy actually works on the ground.  I stressed how the team in London operates collaboratively and not in a top-down way, a message that I think went down well.  They must have liked what I said, because I got invited to give a talk there the following Wednesday. I was impressed that about forty people came to hear me at short notice and did not mind me plugging Nudge Nudge Think Think, our book with Bloomsbury. I now have a stack of business cards from the people who came (as well as many from the other events).

With this talk done, I went over to see my fellow nudge conspirator and co-author, Gerry Stoker, who is visiting the University of Canberra, thinking my tour was done. All I had to do was to pack up my flat and say my goodbyes.  But then a member of the team from the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, which is working on behavioural insights, e-mailed me and asked me if I could come in, so found the time on my last day in Australia. I regaled them with my anecdotes about the Behavioural Insights Team and my involvement with it, which they liked. They listened to my message that behavioural insights needs top-level political sponsorship to ensure that it beds down and creates innovation, one the messages of my paper, ‘Policy entrepreneurship in central government: the Behavioural Insights Team and the use of RCTs’.  

So on Friday 16th August, as I was settling into my long flight home, gazing at the towers of Sydney slowly receding into the background, I reflected on what I had found out from my tour. I was impressed by the great interest in behaviour change policies, and the willingness to look at randomized controlled trials as a method of evaluation. I can report a lot of enthusiasm, and my sense is that Australia is on a cusp of something important, and policy-makers can learn from the early steps that were taken elsewhere. I fully expect many experiments and new ideas will come from state and federal governments in the years to come. Had I tried harder I reckon I could have spent every day of my month talking to people. Fortunately, I managed to finish off a book on the internet and politics with Helen Margetts, write some research papers, and—of course—work on that ARC project on policy agendas!  But I felt a learnt a lot this time. I had been to ANU once before and never left my computer screen; this time I actually got out and about and learnt something about Australian politics and administration! So thank you everyone for my tour.