Navigating Behavioural Public Policy: Summary of Published Paper

Mukhtarov, F. (2024). Combining behavioural and reflective policy tools for the environment: a scoping review of behavioural public policy literature. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 67, 4, 714-741. 

As BPP continues to shape policy landscapes, embracing a pluralistic, adaptive, and contextual approach becomes imperative for a more effective and sustainable impact.

In the landscape of Behavioural Public Policy (BPP), a field that has flourished since the early 2010s, a lively debate has unfolded, marked by high-profile case studies and the involvement of Nobel Prize laureates. Proponents champion the imperfect rationality of human decision-making (in all its forms and shapes), while critics express concerns about democratic principles and the lack of empirical evidence for the long-term impacts of BPP tools. Amidst this discourse, a growing consensus calls for a more humanized, pluralistic, adaptive, and contextual approach to BPP. This article documents what shape such new avenue takes and what it has achieved so far, including its blindspots.

Unveiling the Typology: Reflective and Behavioural Tools

To delve into the practical application of this holistic vision, a crucial first step involves reviewing established literature on policy mixes. A significant contribution to this discourse is the introduction of a novel typology categorizing policy tools into reflective and behavioural. Reflective tools encompass deliberation—a collective exchange of views shaping informed preferences—and individual reflection, a personal contemplation of values and goals. On the behavioural side, tools include nudges—verbal and non-verbal messages targeting cognitive heuristics—and emotional frames designed to elicit desirable actions through emotional responses.

Table 1 Typology of Behavioural and Reflective Tools

Type Policy Tool Definition and key assumptions
Behavioural tools Verbal and non-verbal Nudge The use of verbal messages and structuring the environment to target cognitive heuristics of individuals that would in turn facilitate a socially desirable action. Messages that channel attention and facilitate concept formation, but that do not rely on strong emotional responses.
Emotional Frame The use of verbal or non-verbal messages to target an emotional response of individuals that would in turn facilitate a socially desirable action.
Reflective tools   Deliberation Collective and transformative processes of exchange of views to help form reflective and informed preferences
  Individual reflection Largely individual process of reflecting on one’s values, goals, and behavioural patterns

Scoping the Landscape: A Review of Environmental Policy Initiatives

Building on this typology, a scoping review sought to analyze the landscape of policy mixes in environmental policy. A dataset of 62 initiatives worldwide, encompassing urban planning, was gathered from diverse sources using scholarly engines of search (Web of Science, Google Scholar, Scopus). While the literature is not yet fully grounded empirically, 45 entries provided empirical cases, covering various environmental policy areas such as conservation, climate change, and urban planning.

Global Disparities in Policy Mixes

A striking revelation emerged from the review: a significant majority of cases originate from the Western world, constituting 70% of all cases and 94% when excluding initiatives without specific geographical focuses. This stark disparity suggests that the combination of policy tools in the Global South, particularly in the realm of environmental policy, is not as popular or prevalent.

Diverse Policy Mixes: Insights from the Dataset

The table in the paper provides an insightful categorization of policy mixes, offering illustrative examples from the dataset. Categories include combinations like “Frame/Nudge to Deliberate,” integrating linguistic frames to encourage debate, and “Nudge/Frame to ‘Think’ (Reflect),” involving strategies for reflection on behavior patterns. Each category sheds light on the diverse ways policy tools can be combined to address specific challenges. The distribution of initiatives is also interesting, showing, for example, that individual “think” strategies are not as rare as the opponents of BPP claimed.

Key Lessons and Future Directions

  • Five key lessons and outlines future directions for BPP. Firstly, the legitimacy of behavioural interventions is questioned despite limited public scrutiny, urging a deeper understanding of this paradox.
  • Secondly, the majority of reviewed policy mixes hail from affluent Western or authoritarian Middle Eastern and East Asian countries, emphasizing a need for broader investigation in the Global South.
  • Thirdly, a call is made for a more profound engagement of behavioural tools with political components, considering social justice, equity, and macro-contexts in decision-making.
  • Fourthly, the text advocates for ethnographic accounts and diverse methodologies in BPP literature, moving beyond experimental approaches.
  • Finally, a closer integration of BPP literature with policy sciences is proposed for a more comprehensive understanding of behavioural public policy and administration.

Environmental Policy: A Crucial Context

In the context of environmental policy, the text underscores the centrality of deliberative legitimacy and the prevalence of calls for policy mixes. It also notes a lack of attention to initiatives from the Global South in this domain, acknowledging limitations such as a focus on specific tools, the absence of evaluations, and potential language and tool bias in the literature search.

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