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Whitehall’s nudge unit shows there’s more to writing than being clear

[13 May 2013] The Cabinet Office’s behavioural insights team, created in 2011, is to become a private company owned one third by the government, one third by a private investor, and one third by the group of economists and psychologists who work for it. It’s based on the idea that merely telling people what to do – even if the message is clearly written and seems to be in their own interests – doesn’t always get results, and this can cost the State a lot of money. So advising people to pay their taxes on time or not to stuff themselves with so much food they become obese doesn’t always work. Instead, the nudge unit aims to come up with an approach that’s psychologically more effective.

Two examples will suffice. People who are fined in court don’t always pay up. Sending them a letter achieves very little as only 5% comply. But a trial scheme in the south-east has found that if you send them a text message with their name in it, the response rate rises to 33%. This idea will go nationwide soon.

Second, people have until the following January to settle their income tax bill for the tax year ending April. On the nudge unit’s advice, HMRC have been testing some new reminder letters that include the startling figure that most people living in the recipient’s town or postcode have already paid their tax. This has led to repayment rates rising by 15%, which would generate a saving of £30million in the cost of collecting tax if repeated on a national scale.

The nudge idea is based on the 2008 book ‘Nudge’ by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The new company hopes to be able to sell its ideas to private-sector companies and foreign governments.

[Source: ‘The nudge report’ by Leo Benedictus, Guardian 2 May 2013]

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