Nudging hits Berlin

Hanno Burmester, Philipp Sälhoff  and Marie Wachinger at Policy Network: “Despite suspicion, the nudge theory may have a place in the process of party reform. Ever since Germany’s Kanzleramt published a job ad in 2014 to recruit three behavioural scientists, “nudging” has become a political buzzword in Berlin. For people outside the Berlin bubble, this may come as a surprise: the British government established its Behavioural Insights Team in 2010 (the less Orwellian nickname is the Nudge Unit). The city of Copenhagen followed soon after and started experimenting with the concept in 2012. Still, nudging seems to have only hit Berlin in recent months, sparking fierce debate among political experts, as well as the German public….

It is not surprising, therefore, that the notions of nudging and libertarian paternalism has quickly found its enemies in the German political debate. Libertarianism here is understood as a radical political ideology which, with the disappearance from federal politics of the centre-right liberal FDP with its partly libertarian agenda, has no representatives at all on the national political stage. Paternalism evokes negative political connotations as well. Moreover, in contrast to the United States, extensive government regulation enjoys widespread public acceptance. At the same time, Germans harbour a deep distrust against opaque and/or seemingly manipulative government actions. The concept of nudging, which explicitly acknowledges that its subjects can be unaware of being consciously influenced, thus feeds into a cultural distrust that, with regards to German and European history, is more than understandable.

Interestingly, however, the political left seems less averse to the idea of stimulating behavioural change through government action. For instance, the German minister of justice and consumer protection, the Social Democrat, Heiko Maas, lauded the approach in an op-ed, saying that it would be wise to acknowledge that citizens do not act rationally all the time. Nudging thus could be a wise compromise “between over-regulation of everyday affairs and laissez-faire politics”.

Nudging is more than a tool for governments, though. We believe it offers advantages in fields that, from an ethical perspective, are less controversial. One of those is the reform of political parties. Since August 2014 we have been  developing new approaches and to party reform in our projectLegitimation and Self-efficacy: Impulses for the Future of Party Democracy. The past decades have shown how hard it is to implement structural reforms in political parties, irrespective of the national context. On the left, for instance, the German Social Democratic party shows a remarkable institutional immunity to change, despite a widespread desire for parties to reflect the demands of rapidly changing societies.

Nudging may provide a tool to identify and analyse current practices of exerting political influence, thereby opening new prospects for changing organisational structures….(More)”