By Tom Wein


On 15th September 2015, President Obama issued an executive order mandating US government agencies employ behavioural insights to enhance their work (read a White House-authored Fact Sheet on the order). On the face of it, this is an unqualified good for behavioural science – the most powerful figure in the biggest government in the world is a convert, and a great many more decisions will be taken on the basis of good evidence and better models of human behaviour.

Yet Presidential Terms are short, and the current one has only a year to run. Whether such an executive order will have the impact it should will depend on commentary and promises made in the febrile atmosphere of a US election. Political support is valuable, but political polarisation can mean bureaucratic paralysis. This post takes a brief glance at bureaucratic success in the US, EU, UN and UK.

This author has previously referred to Robert Moses as a paradigmatic example of a practitioner of bureaucratic power. Moses’ conclusion from his early failed attempts to effect change was that ‘executive support’ is everything. It is often said in Brussels too that the one way to cut through the treacle of EU bureaucracy is to secure the attention and intervention of ministerial-level ‘principals’. Top-down orders certainly move things along. Yet the evidence on bureaucratic change is mixed; executive support is not all, and many argue that institutional innovation comes from below – see for instance the work of Sandford Borins.

There is another factor. Obama is a uniquely polarising President. His legislative agenda has attracted more concerted opposition and less bipartisanship than his predecessors. What Obama supports, Republicans are inclined to oppose. Earlier this year, Republicans launched a sustained attack on evidence-based medicine as part of their opposition to the President’s healthcare reforms. Behavioural insights is often criticised as manipulative and interventionist; that makes it a policy area that fits the existing Republican narrative about an overbearing Democratic Party. Obama’s support risks making behavioural science a political football, to its long-term detriment.

In a keynote celebrating the 70th anniversary of the UN, Mark Maloch-Brown reflected wistfully on the Cold War, when the banner of ‘apolitical action’ allowed UN agencies to get much done out of sight of the deadlocked Security Council. It was, he felt, a historic mistake in the 1990s to concede that international development is political – not because it is not, but because it fatally restricted the ability of the UN to get things done.

The story of the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team may suggest a third way. BIT was incubated at the Cabinet Office, which on Whitehall is both the powerful arm of the executive and too dull and bureaucratic to register on populist political radars. That unique position may help explain its success; it received executive support without much political scrutiny.

At some point, Republicans will stop attacking one another, and start attacking a Democratic nominee. When the moment comes, it would be a great shame for those who want to see the approach prosper if behavioural insights was a target in their sights.

Tom Wein

Tom Wein

Founding Partner at Aware International
Tom Wein is the founding partner of Aware International, a social enterprise offering behaviour insight and ground insight services for the public good. A behavioural science consultant and writer, he works mostly on conflict and development. He tweets @tom_wein and his writing is collected at
Tom Wein