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The boundaries of Behavioural Insights: observations from two ethnographic studies

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Background: `Behavioural Insights’ has emerged as an increasingly popular approach to policy making in governments across the globe. Practitioners largely present a frontstage narrative of Behavioural Insights as a coherent concept but this article challenges such a description.

Aims & objectives: This article aims to explore the ongoing process of policy translation that the global Behavioural Insights community is subject to.

Methods: The data for this project is drawn from two independent ethnographic studies undertaken between 2014 and 2018 studying Behavioural Insights practitioners within Australia, with a focus on federal government (Ball), as well as practitioners within various Dutch central and local government agencies (Feitsma).

Findings: This exploratory study highlights that Behavioural Insights at one level possesses some consistencies in how it is being translated by Behavioural Insights teams in government. These consistencies include a shared narrative and the use of a family of instruments (primarily nudges) and artefacts. At the same time, however, the field is marked by contingencies. These contingencies include disparities between what theories are considered and how it is applied as well as differing levels of commitment to experimental methodologies.

Discussion and conclusions: This study raises important questions about how Behavioural Insights is being translated into practice, especially in government policy making. The contingencies present raise concerns about the identity of Behavioural Insights and whether its presentation as a coherent whole is of more value in a discursive sense than in a practical one.
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Keywords: Behavioural Insights; ethnographic fieldwork; evidence-based policy; nudge; policy translation

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: University of Queensland, Institute for Social Science Research, Australia 2: Utrecht University School of Governance, Netherlands

Publication date: November 2020

This article was made available online on September 13, 2019 as a Fast Track article with title: "The boundaries of Behavioural Insights: observations from two ethnographic studies.".

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