Government launches program to Modify the Behavior of bureaucrats and citizens through clinical experimentation

Federal ‘nudge squad’ led by 20-something wunderkind gears up to change  Americans’ behaviors – for our own good

By  David Martosko In Washington

PUBLISHED: 14:00 EST, 30  July 2013 |  UPDATED: 14:06 EST, 30 July 2013

Maya Shankar is a senior policy advisor at the White  House Office of Science & Technology Policy. Her mandate is to supervise the  organization of a federal government ‘nudge squad’ that will subtly change the  behaviors of bureaucrats — and the rest of us

When does a nudge become a shove?

Americans may find out in coming years, as  the federal government is setting up a ‘behavioral insights team’ to tinker with  the way we accomplish everything from saving money and staying in school to  losing weight and becoming more energy-efficient.

A document from Maya Shankar, a late-20s Yale graduate  and former violin prodigy, sketches out the Obama administration’s grand plans  for behavioral science.

Shankar joined the Obama administration in  April as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of Science &  Technology Policy.

‘[I]nsights from the social and behavioral  sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less,  and help people to achieve their goals,’ says her proposal,  first spotted by Fox News when Shankar sought help from a university  professor.

In 2006 Shankar was named one  of Glamour magazine’s ‘Top Ten College Women,’ telling the editors that her dream job was  to become ‘Science advisor to the president.’ A handful of years later, she’s  already there.

Shankar’s mandate is to reproduce  a British pilot project in the U.S. Launched in 2010, it identifies and tests  ‘interventions’ that can save the government money, and drives ordinary Britons  to embrace behaviors that the government finds desirable and  cost-effective.

Nudge or Noodge? Cass Sunstein, formerly the Director of  the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and  Budget, is regarded as the godfather of modern government paternalism
Overreach: Following a ‘Million Big Gulp March in lower  Manhattan, an appeals court has ruled against Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal  to prohibit the sale of soft drinks in cups that hold more than 16  ounces

In the UK, a series of bulletins from the  office of the Prime Minister’s cabinet sketch out how broad the approaches have  become. They have already tackled wasting food, cheating on exams, job-seeking  schedules, skimping on charitable giving, drinking milk, morning commutes,  choosing sources of energy and sticking to New Year’s resolution.

Now the concept is poised to enter America  with a formal structure consisting of a team to oversee clinical experiments to  see what works and what doesn’t. Shankar’s memo suggests the project is already  up and running.

‘We are already working with over a dozen  federal departments and agencies on newly-designed behavioral insights  projects,’ the document reads, ‘including the Department of Labor, Department of  Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Veterans Administration,  Department of Treasury, Social Security Administration, Department of Housing  and Urban Development, and the United States Department of  Agriculture.’

Shankar did not respond to a request  for  comment. She finished her postdoctoral  research at Stanford this year, where  her faculty advisor was Dr. Samuel  McClure.

McClure studies ‘delay discounting,’ the  habit of giving up large future rewards in favor of smaller bonuses in the short  term.

Coming to America? The UK’s ‘Behavioural Insights Team’  works ‘with almost every government department,’ and consults with ‘local  authorities, charities, NGOs, private sector partners and foreign  government[s]’

Some behavioral scientists believe  they can  improve people’s self-control by understanding the relationship between short  term memory, intelligence and delay discounting.

This has mostly been used to counter  compulsive gambling and substance abuse, but Shankar’s entry into  government  science circles may indicate that health insurance objectors  and lapsed  recyclers could soon fall into a similar category.

The science community is split on the value  of ‘nudge paternalism’ in government.

Richard Thaler, who co-authored the  book  ‘Nudge’ with former White House regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, toldFox  News that anyone ‘who would  not want such a program … must  either be misinformed or  misguided.’

‘The goal is to improve the  efficiency and  effectiveness of government by using scientifically  collected evidence to  inform policy designs. What is the alternative?’  Thaler asked.

But Utah State University economist  Michael Thomas said he was ‘very skeptical of a team promoting nudge policies’ in  Washington.

‘Ultimately, nudging … assumes a  small  group of people in government know better about choices than the  individuals  making them.’

The book ‘Nudge’ has become a bible for advocates of  ‘choice architecture’ decision-making in government, but detractors call it  nanny-state paternalism. Maya Shankar (R) will find herself navigating the  controversy

After three years, the British government  announced in  May that it would seek to find a commercial  sponsor and privatize the entire project, making it ‘the first policy unit to  spin off from central government,’ according to Cabinet Minister Francis  Maude.

Initial reports that the agency is on course  to save the government $483 million over five years may make it a valuable  takeover target for a private industry seeking to trim its own fat while  acquiring the cachet of scientific relevance.

David Halpern, its government director, has  claimed that ‘billions will be saved.’

In the U.S., however, there’s no indication  that the White House’s ‘nudge unit’ will be anything other than a government  enterprise.

That may not bode well for the Obama  administration, given the cautionary tale posed by New York City Mayor Michael  Bloomberg, whose long-ridiculed ban on large-size fizzy drinks has officially  fallen flat.

An appeals court ruled Tuesday that the  city’s Board of Health didn’t have the constitutional authority to limit how  much soda can go into a restaurant’s cup.

The measure was originally hailed as a  perfect example of ‘nudge’ paternalism that would subtly change behaviors  without preventing the truly thirsty from buying two cups.

But the ruling will set a precedent that  opens up such government interventions to legal nannying of its own from  industries whose bottom lines are affected when bureaucracies try to tweak what  ordinary people do, and how they do it

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