Simon Kelner: When a little nudge is better than an outright demand

Kelner's View


I have never met Steve Hilton, the man of ideas behind David Cameron. In my mind's eye, however, I can't separate him from Stewart Pearson, the character from the television programme The Thick of It who is responsible for making his party "connect" with the public.

He wears his cycling outfit for meetings, he tells politicians not to wear ties, and spends much of his time with flow charts. Armando Iannucci, who created Pearson, clearly had Cameron's man in mind: the cycling, the casual wear, the eco-friendly spin are all part of the Hilton legend. He is renowned for not wearing shoes in the office, and, naturally, for thinking outside the box. But clearly there is much more to Hilton than management jargon, and anyone whose ideas challenge the political orthodoxies demands some attention.

He's regarded as the architect of the Big Society, and some of his other proposals – such as the abolition of maternity leave – are bold iterations of thinking the unthinkable. He's a student of American political philosophies, and is known to be a advocate of Nudge Theory, by which government can effect change in people's behaviour and attitudes by suggestion rather than doctrine.

It derives from a book published in the States in 2008 called Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, a long-winded title for what is essentially a simple concept: that the state will enjoy success by leading, or nudging, its citizens towards change.

Hilton set up a "nudge unit" in Downing Street to put this theory into action. Instead of getting a tax demand, people would receive a letter telling them that 9 out of 10 local residents had already paid up. The message: you'll let yourself, your postcode, and your country down by avoiding your responsibilities. Apparently, there was a 15 per cent rise in people paying their tax among those who received these missives.

There is some discussion that this strategy could be applied in other areas, such as promoting healthy eating, or encouraging people to stop smoking, or curbing excessive drinking. This led me to wonder how this is to be accomplished. I imagine going to the bar, ordering a large gin and tonic, and then suddenly my mobile phone buzzes. I read the text: "A large one? Are you sure? After all, that's two units. Two-thirds of your daily allowance! Why not have a tomato juice? Go on, you know it makes it sense."

Or maybe you'd find a letter on your doormat. "That portion of chips you had last night. Really? You know how bad they are for you. Next time why not go for the mixed salad? And maybe have the fresh fruit rather than the banoffee pie. Just a thought." And instead of the "Smoking Kills" message on fag packets, something that says "it's not very cool to smoke any more. None of your friends does it." You know what: I think Hilton may be on to something.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Digital Project Manager/BA

£300 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An experienced Digital/Ecommerc...

Creative Content Executive (writer, social media, website)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum + 25 days holiday and bonus: Clearwater People Solut...

SEN Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply special educational ne...

Regional ESF Contract Manager

£32500 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Birmingham: European Social Fund...

Day In a Page

Read Next

August catch-up: Waiting on the telephone, tribute to Norm and my Desert Island Discs

John Rentoul
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home