Art And Science Of The Nudge – Innovation In Indian Policymaking

Vinayak Dalmia at Swarajya: “In September last year, a news release stated that NITI Aayog, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, will help set up a “nudge unit”. The stated aim is to deepen the reach of certain flagship programmes including Swachh Bharat, Jan Dhan Yojana and Skill Development.

Mainstream publications have also begun to argue for the same. Since a lot of India’s social problems are behavioural in nature, subtle, inexpensive changes in the “environment” prove more effective than elaborate laws or policies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself hinted at the psychological nature of ills such as gender violence and sanitation. Pratap Bhanu Mehta states – “social failure is as serious a matter as market failure”. The Prime Minister has started with moral persuasion on issues of cleanliness or giving up LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) subsidies. A formal and rigorous approach to some of these problems should be the next logical step.

Government and/or policymakers are in many ways architects designing “choices” and social environments we live in. As designers, they must leverage the fundamental truth that all actors and agents are psychological beings having less-than-perfect rationality. So, while behavioural science operates on the premise that the brain is prone to making mistakes, psychology can address the flaws and design smarter policies.

For example, open defecation is a big problem in India. It stands tangential to the Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat dream. In spite of building toilets, in some cases, the usage rates are no more than 50 per cent. World Bank economist Nidhi Khurana has proposed communicating the harms of this behaviour as opposed to the benefits of using a toilet. In effect, she is suggesting the use of the theory of “loss aversion” which states that people value potential losses more than potential gains (on average, twice as much). Studies have also found that subtle changes in the sense of ownership bring significant improvements.

Noteworthy is the immunisation rate in Rajasthan. It increased after free lentils were given to women who brought their children to dispensaries. Colour-coded footprints in the Delhi Metro is borrowed from Copenhagen in order to institute better civic sense. In Kenya, weekly text reminders help ensure HIV patients adhere to medication schedules….(More)”.