The state must ‘nudge’ not coerce Pakistanis to make the right choices

The state must ‘nudge’ not coerce Pakistanis to make the right choices

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All state interventions should be weighed, among other metrics, against the scale of how much they expand the freedoms of citizens in making their own choices. However, the decisions people make are not always completely rational and may be influenced by behavioral biases. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book, ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness’ suggest that the way to make people make the right choices is by identifying the psychological factors that lead to the selection of those choices and using behavioral interventions to ‘nudge’ citizens toward better decisions. 
While citizens should have the entire range of choices open to them in making decisions, small tweaks can be done to gently push them toward a more desirable alternative. There are several methods that can be applied to persuade individuals to act in a way that is good for themselves and society. The first and most obvious is advocacy, or mass campaigning, in which the citizens are free to choose any option without any form of coercion. Next is ‘nudging’, where behavioral stimuli or economic inputs are used to make one choice appear better than others. The third is giving incentives to lead to one particular choice. The last, and possibly the least desirable, is to institute restrictive laws that obviate certain choices by imposing severe penalties on their being taken. 
It can be argued that a combination of nudging, incentives and mandate has been used by The National Command and Operation Center (NCOC) in organizing the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and which has so far avoided the prolonged and economically disruptive lockdowns that were imposed in several other countries, yet has so far ensured that the health system has managed to cope with a number of waves of COVID-19 cases. The NCOC has proactively warned the public of the dangers of the various waves of COVID-19 that Pakistan has experienced. At the same time, it also mobilized resources to enhance the preparedness of the health system. The NCOC can be credited for trying to keep political considerations out of decision-making, and instead allowing data and science that took account of people’s behavioral proclivities to drive policy. The need for an abundance of caution has gone hand in hand with efforts to persuade the majority of the population to get vaccinated as soon as is practicably possible. Here the NCOC can be said to have ‘nudged’ the public to get vaccinated by, for example, preventing air travel or dining in restaurants for those unvaccinated. 

The NCOC can be credited for trying to keep political considerations out of decision-making, and instead allowing data and science that took account of people’s behavioral proclivities to drive policy.

Javed Hassan

Unfortunately, similar proactivity at nudging the public in preventing the Murree carnage was missing, where after a snowstorm, thousands of tourists were trapped in their cars, and the official death toll was confirmed at 23 casualties. A lot more could have been done by local and provincial administrators to avert such a tragedy than was the case. Lessons need to be learned and measures instituted to prevent such a calamity being repeated. 
To start with, there ought to be a timely response mechanism to weather adviseries. This should be combined with a robust communication system to advise possible tourists of the dangers entailed in traveling to the hill station. Real-time traffic flow data from toll plazas should be utilized to gauge the potential load on the road network against its capacity in severe conditions, and to adjudge when to curtail the entry of vehicles to prevent the clogging of the roads. This presumes that the state has access to real-time and relevant data, and the capacity to use such information to influence the behavior of potential tourists to make choices that preclude endangering themselves. 
At the same time, the state should not too readily be swayed by populist demand for a complete ban of private cars entering Murree or for the imposition of price controls on hotel rack rates. While there could be incentives to tour operators and transport companies to use well-equipped coaches that are designed for severe weather conditions, the state should keep in mind that many travelers prefer using personal cars. Similarly, rack rates of hotels respond to the increasing demand of rooms, and while Murree’s local administration should ensure that the picturesque environs of Murree does not become the exclusive preserve of only the rich, it should allow price signaling mechanisms to incorporate environmental costing and mitigation against dangerous congestion. 
In its response to various critical situations that invariably arise, and require the cooperation of the public to bring about the best possible outcome, the state must always endeavor to be transparent about its intent and inform citizens about the way in which their choices are being shaped. It is imperative that the state should try to keep as light a touch as is realistically possible, while nudging citizens through rational means toward taking the preferred course of action.

– Javed Hassan has worked in senior executive positions both in the profit and non-profit sector in Pakistan and internationally. He’s an investment banker by training.

Twitter: @javedhassan

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