An insight into Behavioural Insight – or the evolution of a grudge about nudge

Dr Mary BaginskyMary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit in the Policy Institute at King’s. (830 words)

When the Department for Education published the Behaviour Insight Team’s (BIT) report on decision-making in intake teams in children’s services earlier this year the sharp intake of breath from many social work academics could be heard across the land, followed by a Twitter tirade. What had led to this?

In another place I have railed against the trend for think tanks and the like to label a shallow dip into a subject as ‘research’ and then to go on to make huge claims that are intended to, and sometimes do, influence policy. But in the past I have also been seduced by the ideas that have emerged from BIT, also known as the ‘nudge unit’. Its stated aim is to apply insights from academic research in behavioural economics and psychology to public policy and services. So when the unit advised the HMRC to change the wording on some of their letters, the result was an extra £200 million collected on time; and when it found that it was clearing the rubbish out of lofts that stood in the way of people insulating them they suggested providing a subsidised loft clearance and the rate at which insulation was happening soared. However, my admiration did not stretch to the findings of the report on social workers’ decision-making.

The work had been commissioned by the Prime Minister and the then Secretary of State for Education (Michael Gove) to determine the behavioural factors that affect social workers’ decisions at the front door and to use this knowledge to improve the ‘front door’ process to help social workers make better decisions. The report is available for all to judge. Some interpreted it as a velvet glove attack on the social work profession. My concerns were different. In the first place they focused on the authors’ claims to have conducted a review of the relevant literature on expert and professional decision-making as well as on social workers and child protection, when the omissions in both areas would be obvious even to those who had only put a toe into the area. In the second place, while the authors did do some fieldwork, over the ten months between the commission and the report this only amounted to seven days in total for the two researchers across five authorities. In my eyes, and I imagine in those of my colleagues, this is not research and it is as disrespectful of researchers as it is of social workers who were observed and interviewed to claim that it is. Why publish a report and label it as ‘research’ when the work informing it falls so short of what should be expected of research? A literature review should at least reference the significant relevant texts and studies; fieldwork should be rigorous and sufficiently extensive to allow researchers time to understand the complexity and variations between the authorities.

Even though I did find the report contained some interesting ideas, I was more than irritated by both the omissions and the opportunities missed to engage with those who had been investigating the area, understood the issues and had the potential to make a contribution. That was why I joined the Twitter discussion. The Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, Isabelle Trowler, was also drawn into it and offered to arrange a meeting to give people an opportunity to meet the team that had conducted the work and debate the issues. It took some time to arrange but it took place last Wednesday, 10 September 2014. If Isabelle had not been active on Twitter this may never have happened.

Apart from the BIT team and civil servants most of those joining Isabelle around the table were academics. Many others would have been there if they could have made the date, so it was left to those of us who could make it to listen to the BIT team summarise their findings—to be honest I missed that part because I was delayed because of animals on a rail line! But my colleague and expert on social work education, Jo Moriarty, filled me in. I joined those present to question, explore and discuss the report. It was all done in a very positive spirit. There were suggestions about studies and approaches—and promises to send and exchange material. I hope the tone of the meeting, and the fact that none of us claimed to have the answer, will mean that in future such discussions will take place at a much earlier stage. Most practitioners and academics would welcome an opportunity to make a positive contribution rather than be seen to carp from the sidelines.

Time will tell if these contacts will influence the trialling of suggested approaches that will follow, but it all feels in a better place than it did that Friday afternoon in April when a report that was not expected spilled over into the ether of the internet and the anger unleashed was diffused by an offer to meet and debate.

Dr Mary Baginsky is Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit (SCWRU) in the Policy Institute at King’s, King’s College London. Follow Mary on Twitter: @abbotsky

See SCWRU news item


Kirkman, E. and Melrose, K. (2014) Clinical Judgement and Decision-Making in Children’s Social Work: An analysis of the ‘front door system’, London: Department for Education.