|Stand Since 2009, the Behavioural Insights Team has been playing with our minds. From job-seeking to anti-smoking, the so-called “Nudge Unit” has been employed by the Government to find novel ways of encouraging us to make the “right” decisions. For example, last year it advised the DVLA to send out letters to non-payers in plainer English with a banner suggesting, “pay your tax or lose your car”. The number of people paying their tax on time doubled. When the letter was later personalised with a photo of the vehicle in question, the figure tripled.
They call this “libertarian paternalism”, and while it can nudge us towards doing things that improve our lives, it also has the convenient benefit of making the Government more money. It is an example of the injection of private sector ideas into Whitehall – in this case, techniques normally associated with advertising. It feels appropriate, therefore, that the Nudge Unit is going to become the first Civil Service department to be “spun” back out into the private sector from whence it came. The nudgers will be teamed up with a commercial business, an arrangement that Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, has dubbed “mutualisation”. Even in this choice of words, the nudge theory is in evidence: to have called it simply “privatisation” might have set alarm bells ringing among the unions. Turning it in to a mutual gives the warmer impression that it is going to be run along the same lines as John Lewis.
Nevertheless, the Public and Commercial Services Union is still crying foul and has denounced this as “back-door privatisation”. But what would be wrong with that? There is much to be gained from opening up Whitehall to outsiders and fresh ideas – so long as any process of “mutualisation” is to the benefit of taxpayers and is totally transparent. We are already starting to see other parts of the Government exploit the know-how of the private market. The Ministry of Defence has announced plans to outsource procurement of the UK’s military equipment, partly in recognition that state-run procurement has been wasteful. In 2011, MPs published a report that found that £8 billion had been squandered on four failed projects.
We would all benefit from a smaller, more efficient state. For that reason, the Government deserves some congratulations for reducing the percentage of people working in the public sector to the lowest level since 1999 and, now, for beginning the process of bringing private expertise to parts of the Civil Service. But we might still ask why this variety of reform has not been tried on a larger scale, sooner. A lot more of our monolithic state could do with a nudge towards the private sector.