Future of Democracy Debate

Nudging hits Berlin

Foto: Oliver Otterson

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.

Developed by two Chicago economists – Cass Sunstein, a former regulatory officer in the Obama administration (and today a professor at Harvard University), and Richard Thaler, a professor at the University of Chicago – is aimed at the “people who have the responsibility for organising the context in which people make decisions.” Sunstein and Thaler argue that institutions in the public and private sector should acknowledge that people, in some cases, make bad decisions. Thus, they should be steered into opting for choices that are good for them in the long term.

It is important, of course, important to understand the political environment from which the idea of nudging has emerged. The notion of “libertarian paternalism”, as Sunstein and Thaler describe the concept of nudging, gives plenty of room for misinterpretation if not properly contextualised. As is once again evident by the fierce domestic debates on President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, American political culture is inherently suspicious of government intervention in everyday life. Sunstein and Thaler’s objective was to offer an alternative to simply governing by regulation. It is no coincidence that the examples of governmental nudging in their 2008 book mainly deal with healthcare, social security and environmental protection – all of them liberal political objectives, which over the years have been the subject of an extremely polarised public debate. The nudge theory thus offered Democrats a handy tool that works as a compromise between those who condemn government regulation and those who plead for stronger government action: the citizens’ freedom of choice remains untouched, but they are still guided in a direction that improves everyday lives.

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 project Legitimation 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. For instance, we believe it is important to examine the “default settings” in political parties today. Take, for instance, the manner in which new party members are recruited and welcomed; donations and membership fees are raised; how party members network with non-party opinion leaders at a local level; and passive party members are re-engaged.

Many of these issues could be tackled simply by changing certain opt-in/opt-out settings or processes that have no historical justification other than “it’s always been done this way.” Nudging, as a concept, enables parties to reach a deeper level of organisational self-reflection. It can help party leaders ask the right questions and potentially find new answers. In doing so, it can help rethink how to allocate resources in a smarter, more sustainable manner and to achieve innovation, thus escaping the stagnation into which many political parties have fallen.

This article was first published on Policy Network.

You can find more information on the project Legitimation and Self-efficacy: Impulses for the Future of Party Democracy on parteireform.org.