Friday the 19th of May 2017, signed the official launch of the new Center for Advanced Studies in Behavior, Public Policy & Administration at Utrecht University, closely linked to the strategic theme Institutions for Open Societies. Key speaker was no less than the acclaimed professor Roy Baumeister, one of the world’s most prolific and influential psychologists. Topic of discussion: “What good are psychological insights for public policy and administration?”. Along dr. Lars Tummers, dr. Joel Anderson, and professor Denise de Ridder in the invaluable role of discussant, participating representatives ranged from the The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (with a recent report on psychology and public policy), policy advisors from the municipality of Utrecht and Rotterdam, and Utrecht University academics from the faculties Humanities, Social and Behavioural Sciences, and Law, Economics and Governance.
Chairing the meeting, dr. Thomas Schillemans (Utrecht School of Governance) sketches the envisioned contours of a network consisting of scholars, practitioners and other societal stakeholders. Ambitions are grand as the centre will work to develop sound policy advice, develop educational opportunities and strengthen research around societal issues by combining insights from psychology, public administration, and other related field. Finally, the day marks the start of a tradition to invite tantalising honorary guests with whom to exchange views, an ambition of which the first example will be walking in shortly.
When the floor opens for discussion reception is constructively critical, as is becoming to a crowd of knowledgeable representatives from both our university and beyond. Some academic voices note potential difficulties and opportunities concerning finance, methods, and education. Societal stakeholders rightfully reiterate the importance of societal relevance; a point shared by the representatives. Let it be clear, the application of scientific knowledge for citizens and society is pivotal. During this lively discussion, our honourable guest enters almost unnoticed: Professor Roy Baumeister a static academic, with a magnificent tie, a warm voice and an amazing smile that affords some comparison to a movie star. Luckily, a short break allows for proper reception as more visitors start filling up the room.
Giving us the proper introductions Thomas Schillemans resumes the programme sketching Baumeister’s background at the University of Florida paired with a humbling array of publication details and academic awards. Clearly we are dealing with an academic heavyweight. Discussant dr. Lars Tummers (Utrecht School of Governance) takes the stage to open the panel discussion. Taking a wide angle, Tummers asks the audience to name a Nobel laureate that already dealt with the topics at hand. After several allusions to Daniel Kahneman, who was prominently present in spirit during the event, Herbert A. Simon is mentioned. A laureate who called for a connection between public administration and psychology as early as 1947, yet would be disappointed with the state of the art today. Using this example to restress the opportunities of using psychological insights in public policy and administration, Tummers also issues a warning. Appropriations of psychological insights require care seen as the context of public administration often proves unruly.
After this piece of advice, dr. Joel Anderson (Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies) invites Baumeister to reflect on the potential opportunities of using psychological insights in policy. In particular, Anderson mentions matters of citizen autonomy, self-indulgence culture, and helping people prepare for important decisions. Hereafter, Professor Denise de Ridder (Department of Psychology) proceeds by mentioning the dangers of manipulation whilst emphasizing the opportunities provided to help people. She notes the rational model of human decision-making is still dominant with many practitioners; a fact that not only offers opportunities but is also in demand of change.
Starting with a reflection on what behavioural sciences, and notably psychology, can do for public administration and policy, Baumeister offers the potential idea of using psychology as a lingua franca, or common language, in the translation of insights from broader behavioural sciences to policies. He then proceeds to illustrate this potential beautifully by connecting not only to public administration in addressing the raised issues, but skilfully and without apparent effort weaving in insights from criminology, biology, pedagogics, law, media and communication.
An engaging discussion follows of which an exhaustive report is sadly impossible. Proving unfearful of controversies Baumeister explicitly directs attention towards the important potential danger of progressive liberal political bias in science. Problematic academically, this is notably so when such insights are inconsiderately applied in policies. Secondly, he cautions scientists to work with visions of how thing ‘ought to be’, as he considers this slowing him down in the quest for knowledge. Then noteworthy point of discussion regards the recognition of the relevance of Baumeisters work on willpower and ego depletion to inform public policy. Policymakers often design policy for people in their optimal state of decision-making. They thereby disregards the many times people are not in full command of their rational capacity. In this light, he offered the suggestion to design policy as to “allow people to fluctuate in willpower”, which aligns with the mentioned report on psychology and public policy mentioned above.
Another lively discussion worth mentioning concerned ethical implications of using psychological insights for policy and focussed specifically the now popular idea of nudging. This in many ways mirrored broader debates held within contemporary academic and societal discourses on the topic. Concerns returned about manipulation, which were extended with apprehensions about integrating nudge instruments in existing legal frameworks. Counterarguments involved the omnipresence of steering choices in daily life and the notion that some of the problematized characteristics of nudge are inherent to policymaking.
With the day coming to an end the ambition exchanging insights and views between academia and practice is a considerable step closer. If anything, the discussion highlighted how a development of a Center for Advanced Studies in Behavior, Public Policy & Administration is timely and relevant.