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

Kelner's View
  • @Simon_Kelner

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.