After participating in this course the student:
- has knowledge and understanding of concepts and debates in behavioral public administration and related disciplines such as political psychology and behavioral economics.
- is able to recognize, criticize, and perform the translation of societal issues at the macro level to policy solutions that intervene at the micro level.
- is able to reflect critically on the effectiveness, appropriateness, and ethics of changing behavior in public settings.
- can apply theoretical and empirical insights from behavioral public administration in policy areas such as health, education, finance, or sustainability.
Governments develop policies to steer society and to attain policy goals, such as to increase public health. Traditional instruments to steer society are creating new rules (such as prohibiting smoking in bars), or to use financial incentives to influence behavior (such as a ‘fat tax’). These traditional approaches assume a rational model of human behavior: by increasing costs of undesirable behavior (such as smoking) or decreasing the costs of desirable behavior (such as a healthy diet) public health is improved.
In the course Government and behavior we take a fundamentally different approach, as citizens are ‘predictably irrational’ (Ariely 2008). They do not always behave rational to, for instance, financial incentives. This model of human behavior has consequences for the ways in which governments can and should steer society. One prominent example is the use of ‘nudging’ in public policy. In their classic book about nudging, Thaler and Sunstein 2008 describe a nudge as … “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” For instance, putting fruit, as opposed to donuts, at eye level to stimulate a healthy diet, counts as a nudge. Changing people’s default choice – making everyone by default an organ donor – also counts as a nudge.
A behavioral approach to government steering – which includes but also goes beyond ‘nudging’ - is explored in this course. During the course students learn what it means to take a behavioral approach to public administration. How does it differ from traditional policy and to what extent has a behavioral approach been taken up by governments already? Furthermore, students learn about opportunities and pitfalls of a behavioral approach. You will discuss whether a behavioral approach is effective (‘does it work?’), but also whether and when it is appropriate (‘do citizens accept it?’), and ethical (‘should government do it?’). Finally, we explicitly study the policy process that leads to ‘behavioral’ policies. Students learn that other actors, such as interest groups, and contextual factors, such as institutions, rules, and norms influence this process.
The course is structured along three phases combining theoretical knowledge with practical examples (such as guest lectures and field trips) in which students are actively involved via discussions, debate, and presentation. First, we dive into the field of behavioral public administration. We look at the process of translating social problems (such as obesity) into micro-level questions (how to we increase healthy eating), and the development of solutions (introducing a ‘fat tax’). The second phase challenges students to reflect on this process and engage in debates regarding effectiveness, appropriateness, and ethics. In the final phase students perform the translation process, which they learned to recognize and criticize in the first and second phase respectively, developing a paper to study a key policy problem. This course is part of the multidisciplinary minor Well-being by design: behavioral foundations and public policy. Here, students will learn to adopt a multidisciplinary perspective by combining knowledge from psychology, interdisciplinary social science, and public administration. In line with the minor, this course draws examples from four key policy areas: health, education, finance, and sustainability.
Students enrolled in the minor Well-being by design: behavioral foundations and public policy will be placed first when this course is over-enrolled.