Head of “nudge unit” considers Heathrow opponents could be bought off with free Caribbean flights

Since the UK’s behavioural insights team, or “nudge unit” was set up by David Cameron in 2010 to try to improve public services and save money, it has had various successes in making small changes to people’s behaviour. It still gets most of its work from government, though it has now expanded to take on a wider range of projects. It is now a part-privatised company. Recently David Halpern, the head of the unit, said that fresh thinking was needed to win over the local population affected by Heathrow, in order to stop their opposition holding back a major infrastructure project. He has told the Times that he believes Heathrow’s neighbours could be bought-off [not his words] by bribes [not his words] of free flights to the Caribbean to persuade them of the benefits of a third runway.  Purely by self interest. That sort of thing could avoid costly planning battles, by defusing opposition. The idea is that by getting free travel vouchers, people being over-flown by planes think “There goes my holiday to Barbados.” The problem of the carbon emissions has not occurred to Mr Halpern. It does not appear that other “nudges” have involved such blatant and expensive bribery.  … Unbelievable that this could be permitted…..


By Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent (The Times)
August 22 2015

Full article at


Whitehall’s behavioural guru believes he can win over Heathrow’s neighbours
Residents living near Heathrow should be given free flights to the Caribbean to persuade them of the benefits of a third runway, according to a senior adviser to the government.
David Halpern, the head of the behavioural insights team, or “nudge unit”, said that fresh thinking was needed to win over the local population when it came to big infrastructure projects to stop the costly planning battles that precede most of them.

Psychologically, the human mind is primed to fear the worst when change is imminent, he said. The mind fills with the bad, which drives out the good. Incentives can help to break into that mechanism, he believes. Smart incentives that need not cost much could help people to realise that there may be an upside for them.

“When it comes to a big project like Heathrow, we need to think about how to help local people feel more positively about expansion. Heathrow airport should be offering local residents who will be affected by the noise of more planes flying over their homes by giving them vouchers for travelling. It would change the way a resident feels about the plane going overhead. It might make them think, ‘There goes my holiday to Barbados’.”
Mr Halpern was speaking to The Times to mark the publication of his book Inside the Nudge Unit, which charts how the behavioural insights team came into being in the early days of the coalition government in 2010 and how it has started to change policy making.

Full article in the Times at




The rise of nudge – the unit helping politicians to fathom human behaviour

The government’s behavioural insights team has won over sceptics in Whitehall and it is now ‘nudging’ behaviour across the world


By Tamsin Rutter (Guardian)




Set up by David Cameron in 2010 to try to improve public services and save money, the nudge unit still gets most of its work from government, though it has expanded to take on a wider range of projects, including work for foreign governments, the World Bank and the UN. “Essentially we respond to the priorities of government,” said Halpern, explaining how the unit chooses its projects. “The key point is that it has to be social purpose.”

The team would refuse to help a major drinks company improve sales, for example, but might help with a project to reduce sugar consumption.

Most of the changes applied by the nudge unit are tiny: a text message, rewording a letter, a personalised email. One of Halpern’s favourite projects was on improving police diversity. Although around 60% of applicants from a white British background were passing the situational judgment capability stage of Avon and Somerset constabulary’s recruitment process, only 40% of black and minority ethnic (BME) applicants passed it. Halpern’s team reworded the email sent to all candidates that congratulated them on passing the previous stage to include a request for them to “take some time to think about why you want to be a police constable” before moving on to the next test.


Back in 2010, its launch was greeted with a great deal scepticism. It influences the public without them knowing it and is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Last year a Lords select committee called for more evaluation of its successes and failures. But it seems to have won over senior civil servants. “If you’re a permanent secretary or head of department you have seen lots of ideas come and go. New governments come in on a wave of new shiny ideas,” said Halpern. “But permanent secretaries can read a graph pretty well, even if they don’t see enough of them.”

and it continues …….




As a part-privatised company, the nudge unit is no longer subject to freedom of information (FOI) requests, a move criticised by sceptics already suspicious of the practice of “implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public”.

This is a very negative view, says Sanders, quick to point out that any correspondence with Whitehall can be subject to FOI. The team will also be audited by the National Audit Office.