Remaking citizens for the ‘Big Society’

Saturday 29 October, 1.30pm until 3.00pm, Henry Moore Gallery

A central idea in Prime Minister David Cameron’s vision of a ‘Big Society’ is that the state needs to encourage us to change our behaviour so we are less dependent on public services in health and welfare. The much-touted phrase ‘from nanny to nudge’ suggests the Conservative-led government wants to move away from New Labour’s more explicit approach to regulating our lifestyles. Instead of ‘sticks’ like bans or punitive taxes, the talk is of ‘carrots’, rewards and inducements. So, while every other budget is being cut, in areas with the highest levels of obesity, alcohol problems and poor diet, local authorities can have extra money from a ring-fenced budget to nudge citizens into achieving public health goals. Number 10’s Behavioural Insight Team (dubbed the Nudge Unit) is looking to behavioural psychology and neuroscience for effective ways to get citizens to make better lifestyle choices. For example, it is argued that ‘peer-to-peer techniques’ influence young people’s behaviour in areas like sexual health and drinking more effectively than lectures from authority figures. The cabinet paper Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy suggests that because ‘people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices’, attention should be shifted away from ‘facts and information’; instead policy makers should manipulate our ‘choice architecture’ to ‘change behaviour without changing minds’. At the same time, citizens are to be encouraged to take on a more active role in areas that local and national government have traditionally run, including housing, youth work and social care. Can nudge help recruit a new army of volunteers?

While debate frequently centres on how to change behaviour, on which methods are most effective, should we perhaps reflect on whether changing our behaviour per se is a legitimate aim for government? While the Big Society is supposed to be about ‘people power’, what happens to autonomy and agency when unseen experts and policy wonks seek to subvert competent adults’ decisions about what they eat, how many units they drink or whether they give up time to help the community? Is it a given that we all agree on ‘the good life’? Who has decided that the model citizen should be exercise-loving, abstemious, non-smoking, volunteering? Is nudge a clever if slightly manipulative version of state interference, or a more progressive way of helping people help themselves?

Listen to session audio:


Dr Stuart Derbyshire
reader in psychology, University of Birmingham; associate editor, Psychosomatic Medicine and Pain

Tiger de Souza
knowledge and innovation manager, v, The National Young Volunteers' Service

Steve Reed
leader, Lambeth Council; councillor, Labour Party, Brixton Hill Ward

Liz Richardson
research fellow, University of Manchester; co-author, Nudge nudge think think: using experiments to change civic behaviour

Kathryn Ecclestone
professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)

Produced by
Kathryn Ecclestone professor of education, University of Sheffield; author, Governing Vulnerable Subjects in a Therapeutic Age (forthcoming)
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