#47 Why we need to “Nudge”

Image of baby elephant being guided by larger elephant

The definition of the notion to nudge is described in a McKinsey article Behavioural science in business: Nudging, de-biasing, and managing the irrational mind as being subtle:

“Subtle interventions based on insights from psychology and economics – we can influence people’s behaviour without restricting it”.

Although in the McKinsey article there was a strong alignment between psychology and economics and in my own research I found an interesting fusion between policy and complexity

(complex adaptive system theory) theories. Either way the notion to ‘nudge’ is exactly what is needed and I could find no better example of this than the current Australian debate that surrounds The Election Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill. In summary since the end of 2017 a Bill that was taken to the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters has created much concern particularly for civil society – or those representing civil society.

“Many in the charity sector are concerned this could be problematic for charities and not for profits, as it broadens what is reportable beyond expenditure on campaigning via advertising and the media during an election to expenditure on activities like producing a submission and giving evidence to a parliamentary inquiry, engaging with a United Nations body, looking into Australia’s domestic activities, or producing a research paper published on an organisation’s website that contains some conclusions”

The above quote comes from one of the many ProBono articles on this Bill and along with CCA, Philantrophy Australia and even the United nations a ‘collective representative voice’ of frustration has been made. Why does the charity, Not For Profit, third sector, for impact and/or any of the other colloquial names used to describe the sector that represents civil society (the end user) been caught in a debate on whether it should or how it’s voice can/can’t be expressed. The ongoing debate of this legislation has been going on for much of the end of 2017 with it seriously ramping up in 2018 and the launch of the #handsoffourcharities campaign. The Bill is a perfect example of policy trying to nudge behaviour of the end user but in fact having the adverse effect.

The Australian civil society must all be grateful for the tireless work of Karen Mahlab (ProBono civil voices) and David Crosbie (CCA) – along with many others – who have fought the status quo to ensure the collective feelings of dissent regarding the proposed Bill are at least being held to account. Dr Aruna Sathanapally, a Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre released a report titled “The Special Rapporteur’s Report” and in an article expressed being  ‘astonished at the Turnbull Government’s anti-democratic slide’.

‘At the same time, the government is proposing sweeping new laws to keep government information secret, and punish whistle blowers, that have been widely recognised as going too far in a democratic country. The government must move quickly to withdraw of fix these Bills if it is genuinely committed to democracy, and being accountable to the people.’

In my daily roles in the ‘business for purpose’ arena of adding value to partnerships between prosperity and purpose I am mindful that the intensity of the ‘nudging’ debate can easily be parked or placed in the space of being ‘too hard’.

Well this couldn’t be further from the truth. My statement is a strong one and rightly so as it formed the title of my PhD Thesis reinforcing the importance of the local voice in any form of ‘nudging’:

Decision making at the local level: the missing link?

I can also point to a common sentiment across my Consequences Blogs and my Thesis that more than ever before in these fast-changing times engagement with the end user is paramount. To propose or work against this purpose and/or place legislation to reinforce such opposing actions creates entrenched silos. In my research I found that policies by ignoring the local voice ended up creating the exact opposite of their intention and often these were set within the best economical and psychological ‘nudging’ intensions.

For example, in the UK legislation an Act of Parliament (Localism Act) introduced in 2010 (or nudged) with the aim to facilitate the devolution of decision-making powers from central government control to individuals and communities. Even though the Localism Act was designed to engage and empower communities due to it being instigated through traditional approaches that were linear and restrictive the exact opposite was achieved and not only at the community level. My research identified how funding was no longer shared, organisations become more protective, competitive and the end user either missed out on opportunities and/or was left with the same feeling of dissent of being ‘done to’. There was no positive ‘nudging to be found – quite the opposite. In the case studies within my research the silos became further entrenched and the devolution and engagement became less agile and the intended ‘nudge’ towards empowerment resulted with less engagement with the end-user – not the purpose of the original legislation.

In the 21st century for policies to consider psychology and economics on their own it is not enough. The forms of ‘nudging’ that works in changing environments are ones that embrace complexity and in the case of the UK example not through top down legislation. The nudge theory is most relevant but it needs to be set within an ecosystem of change that includes ‘decision making at the local level’

This is exactly why The Election Funding and Disclosure Reform Bill may tick the right boxes from an economical and psychological basis (this in itself is debatable) but this is not good enough on its own. The addition of the systemic change requires consideration of change that must be set around the needs of the end user not the services. Those representing the needs of the end user (aka charitable sector – civil society) are making it very clear that the current bill is not ‘fit for purpose’.

Australia has many challenges to overcome but on a comparative scale with countries around the world we don’t have it as tough. It makes no sense in this current 21st century paradigm shift to be adopting draconian policies that restrict rather than engage the end user. My research and its UK legislation case study provides a perfect example of the limitations of what could/ or is ahead should such the Bill in Australia be approved.

Always trying to keep the Consequences Blogs bipartisan and A-Political I make reference to the recent stand from Bill Shorten (leader of the opposition) not as alignment to a political party but one of alignment for society in the 21st century. Remembering the findings of my study the consequences were dire for many of the local initiatives as the Localism Act was released. Albeit a different form of legislation I find it most alarming that similar restrictive approaches are even being considered for Australia and its future.

I use the past tense possibly quite ambitiously as the risk has not completely passed but at least the discussions have halted the Bill and at the time of writing this Blog the legislation is being reviewed.

This is not someone else’s problem it is our collective problem. Like all problems on the flip side there is often a positive. The future is unknown and calls upon innovation as being key to ‘nudging’ in a very fast changing environment. Protecting the voice of those on the receiving end is not only good 21century practice to be ‘fit for purpose’ but I would go as far as saying key to survival – any actions working against this are not the kind to be supported – Just nudging!

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