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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Nudging in the Netherlands: Reflections on the Academic/Policy Interface

I am currently in the Netherlands talking to a series of people about the emerging impacts of the behavioural sciences on Dutch public policy. This morning I learned that while behavioural economics and psychology are popular here it has taken time for their insights to be incorporated into policy development and design.

In many ways the Netherlands was in the behavioural vanguard. Back in 2009 the Netherland’s Scientific Council for Government Policy convened a major seminar to discuss the potential role that the behavioural sciences could play in government. Richard Thaler was amongst those who spoke at the 2009 event. A report was produced after the seminar entitled De overheid als keuzearchitect. While the idea of the government as choice architect appears to have been popular, it is only recently that these ideas have been translated into policy action. This delay appears to have had something to do with the complex ways in which the ideas of academics are legitimized to policy-makers.

Evidence of the influence of the behavioural sciences can now been seen at a number of levels in The Hague. First, there is a broad commission of civil servants from different ministries (coordinated through the Ministry of Economic Affairs) who are exploring the policy implications of behavioural economics. More specifically, in the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment a behavioural insights Think Tank has been established to explore the potential role of the behavioural sciences in reducing car use and domestic energy consumption. The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also showing a keen interest in the use of nudge techniques.

I am very much looking forward to learning about these policy developments over the coming days as I travel around the Netherlands. I think, however, that what I have learned so far about the Dutch academic/policy interface raises some interesting questions about how the ideas of academics make their way into policy decisions. These are issues that are particularly pertinent when discussing the behavioural sciences: because while economists have long had influence in policy circles, psychologist and sociologists have not. The academic/policy interface has been discussed in the UK, where the idea of a Chief Social Scientist (to mirror the already established position of Chief Scientist) has been mooted. It has also been a topic of some discussion in the US. In the context of Federal level attempts to create a “Nudge Squad”, the White House’s Council of Economic Affairs has been considering ways in which the insights of the psychological sciences can more effectively inform public policy making.

There is, of course, no quick and easy solution to ensuring that good academic research and ideas inform public policy. The danger with a single Chief Social Scientist could be that their particular disciplinary biases shape which ideas reach policy-makers. This problem does not necessarily go away when advisory committees do the job of a single advisor. When more disciplines are represented around the table it is clearly less likely that one will hold sway. There is a danger in these situations, however, that many perspectives can lead to a lack of clear vision.

The case of the Netherlands clearly shows that good and innovative ideas will always been embraced by policy-makers. How to ensure consistency in how the new ideas of the social, psychological and behavioural scientists are presented and assessed by governments is a question that I suspect more and more states will be addressing over the coming years.

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