Beyond nudge: advancing the state-of-the-art of behavioural public policy and administration

person sitting with a mask on
  • Published Date: 10 February 2021

In the past two decades, behavioural public policy and behavioural public administration have attracted much political and research attention from around the world. A paper in Policy and Politics argues that behavioural public policy and administration can go beyond the individual level as behavioural policies have the potential to better understand, investigate and shape social outcomes.

What is behavioural public policy and administration? 

Behavioural public policy (BPP) and behavioural public administration (BPA) provide insights about psychological micro-mechanisms to inform the study, design, and implementation of public policy. While BPP generally refers to interventions that are directly inspired by principles of behavioural research, BPA is defined as the analysis of public administration from the micro-level perspective of individual behaviour.  

Behavioural interventions are often seen as an innovative approach to reassess policymaking and public administration. These interventions shift the focus of public policy and its implementation to the individual level as policies are influenced by behavioural science and aimed at changing the individual’s behaviour in a certain situation.  

The potential of applying behavioural insights throughout the policy process has not yet been fully exploited. At the same time, limitations to behavioural approaches have become evident. For example, behavioural interventions have yet to be applied to more complex problems.

A behavioural model of the policy process 

BBP and BPA are based on how humans actually make choices. As such, they focus on what works on the ground rather than at the level of social structures. This focus on micro-level behavioural processes has been a point of criticism as it neglects the social and political conditions and implications of individual actions.  

For example, ‘nudges’ (small scale changes in public choice architectures to achieve individual behaviour change) arguably have a limited capacity to cause lasting behavioural change. They are often not adequately situated in and linked to people’s social contexts such as socioeconomic factors that underlie such behaviours. There is increasing consensus that an in-depth understanding of context and behaviours is crucial to tackle more complex policy and organisational problems. 

The paper argues an appropriate framework for rethinking the foundations of behavioural public policy and administration has to serve a dual purpose:

  1. It has to explain how micro (policy actors, target groups), meso (organisations, networks) and macro (institutions) perspectives are linked with each other.  It has to explain how micro (policy actors, target groups), meso (organisations, networks) and macro (institutions) perspectives are linked with each other.  
  2. It has to explain how behavioural policies are embedded in and shape the policy process.

This results in a behavioural model of the policy process that offers an understanding of the interrelations between social structures and individual action (see Figure 1). Figure 1 shows how changing cognitive processes and behaviour at the micro level can lead to social outcomes at the institutional level.

Figure 1 shows how changing cognitive processes and behaviour at the micro level can lead to social outcomes at the institutional level.

Figure 1

A broader focus  

While it still focuses on the micro-foundations of social action, the model acknowledges that individual behaviour and attitudes are influenced not only by individual psychological conditions but also embedded in social and political contexts. This connects behavioural policymaking and administrative behaviour to social structures and broader societal outcomes. The model also illustrates this back-and-forth interaction between the micro and the macro level.

Lessons for behavioural public policy and administration 

The behavioural model of the policy process suggests the impact of behavioural interventions unfolds beyond the micro level. In aggregate, individual actions influenced by behavioural policies produce social outcomes at the meso and macro level. These social outcomes have implications of greater scale than the individual effects of behavioural approaches. 

Seen this way, behavioural approaches have political and societal consequences. If behavioural policies are designed and applied, they therefore always have to be understood as a result of political processes which include the influence of interests and ideological frames.

Want to read more? 

Beyond nudge: advancing the state-of-the-art of behavioural public policy and administration - Benjamin Ewert, Kathrin Loer and Eva Thomann, Policy and Politics, January 2021

Each fortnight The Bridge summarises a recent piece of academic research of relevance to public sector managers.

Sign up for The Bridge

Recent Research Briefs include: