Activating Agency or Nudging?

Article by Michael Walton: “Two ideas in development – activating agency of citizens and using “nudges” to change their behavior – seem diametrically opposed in spirit: activating latent agency at the ground level versus  top-down designs that exploit people’s behavioral responses. Yet both start from a psychological focus and a belief that changes in people’s behavior can lead to “better” outcomes, for the individuals involved and for society.  So how should we think of these contrasting sets of ideas? When should each approach be used?…

Let’s compare the two approaches with respect to diagnostic frame, practice and ethics.

Diagnostic frame.  

The common ground is recognition that people use short-cuts for decision-making, in ways that can hurt their own interests.  In both approaches, there is an emphasis that decision-making is particularly tough for poor people, given the sheer weight of daily problem-solving.  In behavioral economics one core idea is that we have limited mental “bandwidth” and this form of scarcity hampers decision-making. However, in the “agency” tradition, there is much more emphasis on unearthing and working with the origins of the prevailing mental models, with respect to social exclusion, stigmatization, and the typically unequal economic and cultural relations with respect to more powerful groups in a society.  One approach works more with symptoms, the other with root causes.

Implications for practice.  

The two approaches on display in Cerrito both concern social gains, and both involve a role for an external actor.  But here the contrast is sharp. In the “nudge” approach the external actor is a beneficent technocrat, trying out alternative offers to poor (or non-poor) people to improve outcomes.  A vivid example is alternative messages to tax payers in Guatemala, that induce varying improvements in tax payments.  In the “agency” approach the essence of the interaction is between a front-line worker and an individual or family, with a co-created diagnosis and plan, designed around goals and specific actions that the poor person chooses.  This is akin to what anthropologist Arjun Appadurai termed increasing the “capacity to aspire,” and can extend to greater engagement in civic and political life.


In both approaches, ethics is central.  As implicated in the “nudging for social good as opposed to electoral gain,” some form of ethical regulation is surely needed. In “action to activate agency,” the central ethical issue is of maintaining equality in design between activist and citizen, and explicit owning of any decisions.

What does this imply?

To some degree this is a question of domain of action.  Nudging is most appropriate in a program for which there is a fully supported political and social program, and the issue is how to make it work (as in paying taxes).  The agency approach has a broader ambition, but starts from domains that are potentially within an individual’s control once the sources of “ineffective” or inhibited behavior are tackled, including via front-line interactions with public or private actors….(More)”.