SA4F8      Half Unit
Behavioural Public Policy

This information is for the 2016/17 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Adam Oliver COW 3.06


This course is available on the MPA in European Public and Economic Policy, MPA in International Development, MPA in Public Policy and Management, MPA in Public and Economic Policy, MPA in Public and Social Policy, MSc Health Policy, Planning and Financing, MSc in Environmental Economics and Climate Change, MSc in Health, Population and Society, MSc in International Health Policy, MSc in International Health Policy (Health Economics), MSc in Political Science and Political Economy, MSc in Public Management and Governance, MSc in Public Policy and Administration, MSc in Regulation, MSc in Social Policy (European and Comparative Social Policy), MSc in Social Policy (Research), MSc in Social Policy (Social Policy and Planning), MSc in Social Policy and Development and MSc in Social Policy and Development: Non-Governmental Organisations. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit.

This is a capped course.  Places will be allocated to students on the basis of a short statement that is submitted during course choice, outlining the student's suitability for and interest in the course. 

Course content

The aim of the course is to explore ways of changing behaviour to achieve the aims of public policy. One half of the course will be concerned with the behaviour of professionals who work in public services. How can doctors, teachers and social workers be motivated to provide the best possible care for their patients, pupils or clients? Should we rely upon professionalism and the public service ethos? Should we set up targets and league tables for performance, penalising those who fail to achieve the target or who drop down the table? Or should we rely upon patient or parental choice and competition to provide incentives to improve? The second half of the course explores ways of changing individuals' and households' behaviour in areas of policy concern such as smoking, obesity, and the environment. How can people be persuaded to stop smoking, to take more exercise, to eat less, to reduce their carbon emissions? Should we rely upon punitive measures such as bans, on positive incentives such as financial rewards, or on 'nudge' policies that change the choice architecture? Should government intervene at all, if the only people harmed by their own activities are themselves? In trying to answer these questions, the course will draw on recent developments in behavioural economics, motivational and behavioural studies in psychology, and the philosophy of paternalism, including libertarian paternalism and the 'nudge' agenda. It will discuss evidence from a wide range of areas of public policy, but especially health care, education and social care, using illustrations and evidence from Europe, North America and Australasia.


10 hours of lectures and 15 hours of seminars in the LT. 1 hour of lectures in the ST.

Formative coursework

Each student will write one non-assessed essay or mock exam question. There will be a revision session in the summer term, going through the mock exam questions and/or previous years' exam papers. Each student will make at least one seminar presentation during the term.

Indicative reading

J. Le Grand (2006) Motivation, Agency and Public Policy: of Knights and Knaves, Pawns and Queens. Revised paperback edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

J. Le Grand (2007) The Other Invisible Hand; Delivering Public Services through Choice and Competition. Oxford: Princeton University Press

R. Thaler and C. Sunstein (2008) Nudge: Improving Decision about Health, Wealth and Happiness New Haven: Yale University Press

Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational : the hidden forces that shape our decisions. London, HarperCollins.

Kahneman, D. (2011)  Thinking, Fast and Slow   London,  Allen Lane

P. Dolan et al (2010) Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy. London: Cabinet Office and the Institute for Government.


Exam (50%, duration: 2 hours) in the main exam period.
Essay (50%, 2500 words) in the ST.

Student performance results

(2012/13 - 2014/15 combined)

Classification % of students
Distinction 5
Merit 58.5
Pass 35
Fail 1.5

Key facts

Department: Social Policy

Total students 2015/16: 59

Average class size 2015/16: 15

Controlled access 2015/16: Yes

Value: Half Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Course survey results

(2012/13 - 2014/15 combined)

1 = "best" score, 5 = "worst" score

The scores below are average responses.

Response rate: 86%



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