When Nudge Comes to Shove - My Take on the UK's Initial COVID-19 Strategy

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

On March 23rd, nearly two months after the first official COVID-19 case was confirmed in the UK, a grim-looking Boris Johnson announced a nation-wide lockdown that brought life as most Britons know it to a grinding halt. Four days later Johnson revealed that he had contracted the virus himself and was going to lead the country from self-isolation effective immediately. If he’s using his new-found time at home to binge Tiger King on Netflix like the rest of us remains to be seen.

Less than two weeks before restaurants and other non-essential businesses were ordered to close and individuals instructed to #StayHome however, the government was pursuing a very different strategy. Initially, the UK’s strategists in chief were placing their hopes on herd immunity and nudges such as singing Happy Birthday twice while washing one's hand to flatten the curve. The measures led to some hefty criticism of the PM’s response to the outbreak and put the spotlight on an organisation that has been part of the government’s policy making process for over a decade: the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also dubbed “The Nudge Unit”.

When the government’s strategy didn’t delay the spread of the virus as planned, news coverage that scrutinised the BIT’s role in the UK’s crisis response began to pile up. However, most coverage seemed to miss that the government’s communication strategy actually went against the BIT’s basic advice on how to encourage right behaviour during the COVID-19 crisis. But first things first.

Hold on a minute, what exactly is nudging?

Nudge Theory has its roots in behavioural economics, the branch of economics that tries to clarify why we buy a tub of Ben & Jerry’s at Tesco even though fruits would objectively be the healthier choice. According to scholars, our thinking - and therefore our behaviour - is influenced by our subconscious. More often than not our decisions are not based on logic but are made by using so-called mental shortcuts like anecdotes, past experiences and stereotypes. This leads to decisions that aren’t necessarily in our best interest - decisions we might not even make if we’d actively decided on them. And that’s where nudges come into play.

Nudges are supposed to enable individuals to make the choice they would actually like to make. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, two American scholars, popularised the theory in their 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”. They coined the term “choice architecture”, the way in which choices are presented and elaborated on the difference between automated and reflective decision making. Thaler was subsequently awarded a Nobel prize for his contributions to the behavioural economics field in 2017.

Alright, but how is nudging relevant for the government?

Back in 2008 Nudge Theory caught the attention of the UK opposition leader at the time: David Cameron. Under Cameron’s premiership the UK went on to pioneer the application of behavioural economics and psychology to public policy on a governmental level. The BIT was established the same year Cameron became Prime Minister - with Richard Thaler’s help.

Eventually the BIT was spun off as a “social purpose company” in 2014 and is now owned by its employees, The Cabinet Office and Nesta, a charity that describes itself as an “innovation foundation”. It now has subdivisions in New York City, Toronto, Sydney and Singapore with 40% of its revenue coming from clients outside the UK. Over the last decade they worked on almost 800 issues, including projects to tackle tuberculosis, enable earlier cancer treatment for patients and encourage healthier food consumption (looking at you Ben & Jerry’s).

Ok, so what advice did they give on COVID-19?

The BIT released its very first insights on COVID-19 at the end of February, which is when the virus slowly began to spread throughout the UK. They didn’t offer a roadmap of how to behave during the epidemic but rather presented three key factors to help encourage behaviour that was deemed correct by government policymakers. Let’s take a look how well the UK government did:

1. Maintain the public trust

Based on the WHO’s communication guidelines, the BIT first and foremost asserts something that my professors at UAL have been trying to hammer home since the beginning of my Public Relations degree: the effectiveness of your communication stands and falls with the public’s trust.

So, how many of its citizens trust the UK’s government? According to Edelman’s 2020 Trust Barometer, not an awful lot. 36% to be precise. A whopping 73% indicated they don’t trust in the governments ability to successfully tackle the country’s challenges. And the government wasn’t only determined as the least ethical, but also as the least competent national institution. A sobering conclusion.

The BIT elaborates that more trusted individuals like doctors and scientist could be used as messengers, however I doubt that the general public’s apparent level of distrust was offset by the two undisputedly competent chief medical advisers that flanked Johnson at his press briefings.

2. Make messages clear, simple and precise

Next up: clear cut communication is crucial. Try repeating that tongue twister three times. The BIT argues that less information versus an overflow of messages reduces uncertainty and leads to more accurate decisions.

WWGD - What Would (The) Government Do? Well, they not only released (and keep releasing, for that matter) conflicting statements, they also announced essential information in formats that don’t necessarily lend themselves to “keep it short and simple”-type answers, namely press conferences and interviews with the media. The transcripts that were released as a chunk of text on the government’s website afterwards are hardly what I’d call reader’s digest.

The gov.uk COVID-19 section is a little bit of a maze too. Recently the government boiled down their communication to three main calls to action and put them in a header at the top of their website, alongside with links to recent announcements, which helps with the clarity part at least. If you want to find out what to do if you think you contracted the virus however, you still need to scroll through 14 documents in order to find no less than 11 bullet points of “main messages”, just under 500 words. Simple and precise? Not really.

3. Be transparent

This is something certain Instagram influencers had to learn the hard way after their undisclosed partnerships got busted: you need to be transparent about your work for people to believe that you’re acting to the best of your knowledge. When Johnson stated his actions were being guided by “the science” in mid-March he failed to disclose the data that underpinned his strategy. People grew increasingly suspicious of the governments approach that seemed like the polar opposite of the harsh measures the majority of Europe was taking.

In addition to this, the government’s nudging tactics were accused of being deceptive, as it’s a concept that inherently influences individuals on a subconscious level. Even though it is hardly news that the UK applies Nudge Theory in their policies, their use was put under the microscope this time around. Instead of clarifying the BIT’s advisory role or elaborating on nudging’s prior success to put people’s mind at ease the government left the field to the media, which led to scepticism at best and vilification at worst.

So where does this leave us?

Governments are walking a tightrope when communicating with the public during the current pandemic. If they communicate the very real dangers of coronavirus the wrong way people could either overreact - read, buy 42 rolls of Andrex® Classic Clean toilet paper - or grossly underestimate the threat an infection poses. As we all know today, the UK’s initial COVID-19 strategy did not pan out. But can this all be boiled down to bad communication? Would it have worked if the UK just nudged its citizens to behave better? Well, no.

I just spend this entire post arguing that the government didn’t manage to get their message across properly and I still think that is true. I’m absolutely certain the PM received a more in-depth brief on how to get his tactics across but this does not change the fact that his government failed to follow even the most simple advice the BIT published on the topic.

However, the main problem with the UK’s strategy wasn’t the way in which it was presented. The problem was the strategy itself. Behavioural economics and the success of their insights stand and fall with the empirical evidence they draw from. No data is free from error but “the science” Johnson was referring to again and again proved to be more than just a little questionable.

So questionable, that over 600 UK behavioural scientists signed an open letter, raising question about the evidence that was leading Johnson’s decisions and calling on the UK government to release their data and explain their scientific rationale. The letter’s authors wrote an op-ed in Behavioural Scientist, the very same online magazine where the head of the BIT’s New York office published his advice on nudging during the current pandemic. The article is linked on the BIT’s website - not a very good look for the UK government.

Eventually modelling evidence brought forward by Imperial College London researcher Neil Fergusson and his team revealed that the UK grossly underestimated crucial factors such as the virus’ transmission rate. As a direct response to this Johnson drastically changed tone and announced stricter measures, a move the overwhelming majority of the UK supported.

“No research without action, no action without research” Kurt Lewin, a 20th century pioneer of social psychology, urged. He was referring to the necessity of self-reflexion of individuals in order to rationalise and improve ones actions. The UK government would have done well with a little bit more of this during the conception of their initial COVID-19 strategy.