I’m drinking coffee as a write this. That’s not unusual. I drink a lot of coffee, much of it bought from the Pret a Manger that is almost dangerously close to my office in Westminster. (I judge my days by how many meals I eat from that Pret: often two and sometimes three. My life is awesome.)
What is unusual is that the coffee isn’t in a paper cup. It’s in a mug, an ordinary ceramic mug, which I put in my pocket and took to Pret. I handed it over to be filled up and instead of paying the 99p Pret normally asks for a filter coffee (tip for fans of what a dear colleague used to call 'ghetto latte': ask for hot milk) I was charged 49p. Then I walked back to my office with my mug. Why am I bothering you with the mundane details of think-tank life? Because I think there’s something here that people who do politics and policy can learn from.
Why did I take my mug instead of just buying yet another paper cup on caffeine-fix autopilot as I have (too) many times before? I wish I could say it was the 50p discount alone, but in truth I’ve been dimly aware of that discount for all the time I’ve been channelling a large portion of my disposable income to Pret. Yet I’ve never bothered to take a mug or buy one of those funny plastic keep-cups. I’ve just stumbled on like an economic zombie, forking over an extra 50p for every cup, then tossing the cup in a bin. There’s probably an economics analysis in there somewhere about my revealed preference, or maybe just a social comment about metropolitan (cup-) tossers like me having more money than sense. But I’m writing about politics and policy here, not economics. Which brings me back to the reason I took my mug today. It’s Michael Gove.
Now, it so happens that the Environment Secretary is also a regular customer in my local Pret; his office is round the corner too. He’s one of several ministers who can often be found in there, which sometimes makes me wonder what voters would think if they knew that Her Majesty’s Government is largely powered by Pret flat whites and avocado sandwiches.
I didn’t take my mug because I thought I might see Mr Gove and get scolded for using a paper cup, but it was, ultimately him that gave me the final little push to make the leap from paper to ceramic. He has, simply by banging on about paper cups and the environmental harm they do, nudged me into changing my behaviour.
Of course, the fact that Pret sweetened the deal with that 50p discount helped. But it wasn’t decisive – I didn’t do this before. I suspect both Mr Gove’s nudging and the discount were, in isolation, necessary but not sufficient to get me to change my behaviour. The combination was decisive. The lesson I take from this is that it is sometimes possible for politicians to change the way we do things without legislating, regulating or taxing. Sometimes, just talking is enough.
There’s nothing earth-shattering or even original in that observation, of course. Even before behavioural economists started talking about nudges and soft paternalism and even before the behavioural insights team grew into the behemoth of global public policy, lots of people in politics and government knew that you could change things just by using words and ideas: they called it 'leadership'.
Theodore Roosevelt, a politician rightly getting a lot more attention these days, knew this very well. He called the presidency a 'bully pulpit' and used it to the full. (See the splendid Doris Kearns for more).
For some more recent examples, look to Britain’s roads. Pretty much everyone now wears a seatbelt when they drive, but when I was growing up (in the rural north), seatbelt use was sporadic and sometimes even frowned on (it was a macho thing, I think. Funny place, the north). What changed? Yes, there are rules, but the real shift was cultural and social: the idea that everyone wears a belt, that it’s the normal thing to do, mattered more to behaviour than the prospect of a fine or other penalty.
Likewise drink-driving, which was practically a form of recreation in those days. Now, social convention says anyone who drives drunk is a dangerous idiot, deserving of shame and scorn. Fear of stigma keeps drivers sober more effectively than fear of official punishment.
The point is that ideas, words, conventions and norms are all tools that politicians and others can use to effect change – if they have the courage to use them.
These days, it seems that a lot of politicians (and officials, and journalists, and think-tankers, and maybe even voters) have either forgotten about this stuff, or given up on it. Their default thinking about public policy problems is to ask: what is the Government going to do about it? What rule can be changed, what law can be passed, what tax can be raised or lowered or varied? (Or maybe just: What can we announce? One ministerial friend rages against 'announcementitis' in Whitehall, the shared fixation among Spads, ministers and officials to generate things that can be announced to feed the insatiable media beast. Once, Theresa May and team tried to resist that malady. You know how that went.)
This is all understandable. Since MPs’ expenses and before, politicians have been suffering a crisis of confidence, a fear that no-one wants to know what they think or say, just what they can do. That’s fair enough: talk is cheap and delivery should always matter more.
But as Mr Gove and his reusable cup show, there is no need to cringe, no need always to retreat and reach for the familiar levers of legislation and regulation. Sometimes you can change the way people act simply by talking, by saying: 'This is good – people should do this'; or: 'This is bad, people should not do it'. They should also note that businesses, or at least the smart ones, also know the power of social messaging: hence Pret’s discount and hence Iceland this week dancing Mr Gove’s tune on plastic packaging.
(The really smart firms get ahead of the curve and try themselves to lead, thinking about more than quarterly returns to shareholders. BlackRock’s Larry Fink is absolutely right: public companies should realise that if they want to be sustainable and enjoy a policy environment where they can go on doing business, they have a duty to do more than produce a return on capital. It’s a digression, but consider ownership: Pret, which takes a rather enlightened view on paper cups, is owned by a private equity firm – something to ponder for those who consider private equity diabolical.)
This isn’t, to be clear, a small-state appeal for politicians to foreswear regulation or legislation: both those things have a role to play in a fair and wealthy economy. I merely want politicians to use all of the tools at their disposal, instead of timidly leaving some in the toolbag.
I could give you a long, long list of areas of public policy where outcomes could be significantly improved through more such signalling from politicians and other leaders who currently shy away from trying to lead and shape public opinion and behaviour instead of trying to follow or merely accept it. The list takes in everything from the sharing of medical data to the way different groups of people raise their children. In all cases, public leadership from politicians is a necessary condition of improved outcomes.
If you really want to know more about that list, follow our work at the Social Market Foundation, where we try to persuade politicians that the old-fashioned jawbone is an essential tool in today’s political environment – especially when parliamentary deadlock, squeezed public finances and Brexit overload limit the other options.
Or for a more lively example, keep an eye on Mr Gove. He is a politician deserving of close attention.