Sunday 12 August 2012

midata, the loneliest initiative in Whitehall – 2

You will recall the Behavioural Insights Team and its work, the initiative being sponsored by Francis Maude's Cabinet Office.

At least you will if you have that annoying capacity for retaining trivial information which afflicts some people.

For the rest of you, a refresher ...

According to their website:
The Behavioural Insights Team was set up in July 2010 with a remit to find innovative ways of encouraging, enabling and supporting people to make better choices for themselves.

The Team’s work draws on insights from the growing body of academic research in the fields of behavioural economics and psychology which show how often subtle changes to the way in which decisions are framed can have big impacts on how people respond to them.

The Team’s remit is to apply these insights to public policy making in the UK ...
Governments devise policies. They want to achieve certain ends. They are more or less successful in that endeavour. Sometimes we proletarians accede in the government's wishes – we tend to put on our safety belts, for example, when driving. And sometimes we don't – there is no sign of us proletarians at large giving up the illegal use of recreational drugs, for example.

How do we proletarians decide whether to accede or to disobey? If only legislators knew the answers to that question, then maybe they could influence us to improve their success rate and, in their eyes, improve our lives.

The answers are deemed to lie in the insights of behavioural psychology and behavioural economics – "nudge theory", for short. There are various expressions of the gospel. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, for example, and Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini.

The marketing tricks used can be subtle, clever and effective in achieving quite unimpeachable objectives. There could be less legislation and regulation, less fining and imprisonment, more carrot and less stick. But somehow Rt Hon Oliver Letwin MP manages to make all this nudging look downright sinister:
Cameron Conservatism puts no faith in central direction and control. Instead, it seeks to identify social and environmental responsibilities that participants in the free market are likely to neglect, and then establish frameworks that will lead people and organisations to act of their own volition in ways that will improve society by increasing general wellbeing.
There is considerable skill required to nudge opinion and while they were still in opposition, David Cameron and his merry men displayed no facility whatever to influence people successfully.

So you might hope that they gave up on nudging when they came to power. But no. Instead, they set up the Behavioural Insights Team, with an advisory panel headed by Sir-Gus-now-Lord O'Donnell. The team met recently in Taunton to take stock and there is a presentation of their deliberations available here.

But perhaps we could make our own assessment.

The Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) issued a press release on 3 November 2011 according to which:
midata is a voluntary programme the Government is undertaking with industry, which over time will give consumers increasing access to their personal data in a portable, electronic format. Individuals will then be able to use this data to gain insights into their own behaviour, make more informed choices about products and services, and manage their lives more efficiently ...

The midata programme marks a non-regulatory approach to consumer empowerment and is in keeping with the Government’s broader focus on transparency and openness.
Being a voluntary and non-regulatory initiative designed to help people manage their lives more efficiently, midata is definitively a candidate for the Behavioural Insights Team's skills. And, indeed, the recent midata 2012 review and consultation is published jointly by BIS and the Behavioural Insights Team:
Since the launch of Better Choices Better Deals: Consumers Powering Growth the midata programme has proceeded on a voluntary basis ... (p.11)

In the last year progress towards these goals has been made using the voluntary approach to the midata programme ... (p.13)

During the past year midata has been a voluntary partnership between the UK Government, businesses, consumer groups, regulators and trade bodies ... (p.20)

These are encouraging developments and we will continue to push forward midata on a voluntary basis ... (p.27)
The task is to nudge organisations into voluntarily giving people access to the personal data those organisations hold. And what subtle means have been devised by the Behavioural Insights Team to achieve that end?
This initial promise has convinced the Government that more should be done to unlock the benefits of this data revolution. That is why we are consulting on the possibility of taking an order making power. If utilised, this will compel suppliers of services and goods to provide to their customers, upon request, historic transaction data in a machine readable format ... (p.11)

The power would grant the Secretary of State the power to compel suppliers of goods/services to supply, at a consumer’s request, personal transaction data relating to their purchase/ consumption of products and services from that supplier in a machine readable format ... (p.13)

An order making power, if utilised, would compel suppliers of services and goods to provide to their customers, upon request, historic transaction/ consumption data in a machine readable format ... (p.14)

... we are exploring the option of taking an order making power that would enable us to compel suppliers of goods and services to provide their customers’ transaction/consumption data in a machine readable format ... (p.27)
The nudgers are meant to operate, remember, through "innovative ways of encouraging, enabling and supporting". All very modern and all flannel apparently. Faced with recalcitrance, what they propose is good old-fashioned compulsion through legislation.

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