When push comes to shove: inside the NSW nudge unit

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The NSW “nudge squad” is recording impressive results. The Mandarin examines the history and future of the psychological approach to public policy.

The “nudge” has become a buzzword in public sector circles around the world. But when push comes to shove, is psychology always the answer to policy problems?

Back in 2010, critics howled with derision when the United Kingdom’s newly elected coalition government set up the world’s first Behavioural Insights Team, or “nudge unit”. Four years and hundreds of millions of pounds in savings later, word of Whitehall’s success has spread.

In 2012, the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet brought in one of the UK’s senior nudgers, Dr Rory Gallagher, to help establish its own taskforce, where he remains as managing adviser.

The NSW Behavioural Insights Unit now claims impressive results of its own. Last month, it hosted the first ever international BI conference in Sydney. Several hundred delegates joined leading academics and practitioners in the emerging field — almost exclusively from the UK, the United States, Singapore and Australia — to discuss ways of gently nudging citizens by exploiting their cognitive biases, rather than coercing them.

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