Roll up, roll up: Controversial nudge unit seeks private sector cash

The Cabinet Office looks to get some private sector money into its nudge unit
The Cabinet Office looks to get some private sector money into its nudge unit
Alex Stevenson By

The government's 'nudge' unit is to become a profit-making enterprise, as part of the Cabinet Office's drive to make "public assets pay their way".

The privatisation of a unit of civil servants is being seen as a big move across Whitehall, as it paves the way for what Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude says could be "dozens more spin-outs" in the next few years.

Under Maude's plans the controversial Behavioural Insights Team will become a mutual. A private investor, the government and the ten-strong team of civil servants will each own one-third of the company.

All the signs are the unit will be commercially successful. Its work on proposals saving the taxpayer millions of pounds - from tackling smoking to introducing rumble bars on motorways - is in demand from the private sector and foreign governments.


"We are in a global race for the jobs and opportunities of the future. To get Britain back on the rise we must find innovative ways to deliver better services more efficiently," Maude said.

"It's great news that the world-renowned 'nudge' unit is spinning out from central government. As a mutual they will combine the benefits of private sector experience and investment with the innovation and commitment from staff leadership."

It follows a deal with Capita to mark civil service professional qualifications last week, he pointed out, and comes one year after the first mutual to "spin-out" from central government, MyCSP.

The 'nudge' unit concentrates on developing psychological approaches to public policy issues which result in subtle methods of encouraging people to live better, healthier lives.

Its chief, David Halpern, studied experimental psychology at Cambridge University and views himself as much as a psychologist as a civil servant.

"One can never convince everyone – now that would be scary!" he told the Psychologist in a June 2011 interview.

"But it's worth noting that our environment is full of nudges that, for the most part, make our lives safer, easier and more comfortable."

Halpern remains grounded about the extent of his unit's influence across Whitehall, adding: "There are other factors that inevitably go into any given policy decision apart from behavioural science, including practicality, public acceptability and the political instincts of the parties in power."

A competition is being announced today to find the business partner for the unit.

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