Today the Cabinet Office and Nesta announced a new partnership that will take the Behavioural Insights Team – the nudge unit – out of government. The government launched a search for partners last summer, and we at Nesta decided to respond – partly because we’re excited by the potential for behavioural tools to make better policy, and partly because of the very obvious synergies with Nesta’s work.
A lot of what BIT now needs to do overlaps with us. We advise many public sector organisations, helping them innovate more effectively, whether to improve services or cut costs. Our work stretches from local authorities and the NHS in the UK, to working with governments in Malaysia and Brazil, to initiatives like the Mayors Challenge for Europe with Bloomberg Philanthropy. In all of this there’s a close fit with BIT.
We also share a strong interest in extending experimental methods into public policy. BIT has systematically tested different ways of collecting tax or helping unemployed people into work, and we host the Alliance for Useful Evidence and a Centre for Economic Experiments, both at the forefront of promoting intelligent experiment: the simple idea that if governments try ideas out, they’ll get to better results than if they impose untested policies on the whole population.
On their own these shared interests wouldn’t have been enough to justify the partnership. But alongside our lab and our research teams, we also have in Nesta a very strong venture team with long experience of investing in growing businesses and social enterprises. The team is used to helping ventures identify the many details they need to get right to make the most of their ideas – exactly the kind of support that BIT now needs as it grows its business.
We won this bid against very stiff competition from much larger organisations because of that combination of skill on the business side, a commitment to growing the underlying ideas, and an anchoring in public purpose. Our offer combined a loan to help the business grow, back office support, a commitment to investing in R&D for behavioural insights more generally and purchase of equity.
We showed that BIT could grow pretty fast over the next few years – offering services not just for fees but also sharing the risk and the rewards of putting their ideas into practice (which will mean more money for us to fund our charitable activities). But we also showed how it could achieve public benefit as well.
The ideas underpinning BIT are now ready to flower. I’ve had some involvement in this field in the past – helping to write a government overview of behavioural insights more than ten years ago (which, to be honest, didn’t elicit much enthusiasm from the then Prime Minister or any of his ministers).
I also chaired a Department of Health review five years ago, by which time there was a lot more interest in these ideas, though not much action. All the credit for what’s happening now goes to the team at BIT, and the politicians who were willing to take the risk of trying something genuinely new. They did the hard graft of turning a set of promising ideas into practical experiments – and gathering the evidence of impact. I’m glad that Nesta can play its part in taking their work to another level.