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Mis-Communicator of the Week: New Zealand Ministry of Health

7th October 2014


The popular psychology section in bookshops always intrigues me. The books are packaged to look cool but informative and their release is often accompanied by a significant investment in PR and advertising.

Frequently these books – Tipping PointThinking Fast and SlowBlinkThe Art of Thinking Clearly, to name a few – receive mixed reviews but are seen to represent the zeitgeist and sell in large quantities. No figures, however, are available as to how many who buy actually read the books. 

In 2008 one of the books of the moment was Nudge which took the theory of libertarian paternalism into the mainstream, analysing how people make decisions and the impact this has on public policy. Soon after, this approach to policy making was being lauded by politicians in the UK, US and Australia.

In the UK the Cabinet Office houses the Behavioural insights Team or “Nudge Unit” which examines ways to positively change behaviour through nudging people into action. It is said that a tiny investment in creating a ‘nudge’ can save millions for the taxpayer as well as improve people’s health, change what people eat, reduce pollution or stop people smoking. 

All methods I’ve seen are based on incentivising people to take action instead of using legislation or regulations to threaten people into action. Combining economics with psychology, these ‘nudges’ make people feel happier and more informed about the choices they make. This is why action taken by the New Zealand Ministry of Health this week seems so bizarre – reminding unemployed New Zealanders to brush their teeth via a daily text message. 

The New Zealand government has a good record in public service communication and I made their Transport Agency my Communicator of the Week in January. This latest idea though is misguided, poorly targeted, ill-thought through nanny ‘statism’ at its worse.  

Having a daily text message like this must surely underline thoughts in people’s minds that they are not able to do anything for themselves. As someone who has faced the indignity of signing on, even if thankfully only for a very short time, I know how fragile morale can be. 

Belinda Smith, a member of the team in charge of the scheme said, “When we started only 53 per cent reported they were brushing their teeth. By the end of the 10 weeks that had risen to 73 per cent”. No statistics were released on the schemes impact on unemployment which is all those in receipt of the text messages will care about and is why the New Zealand Ministry of Health is my Mis-Communicator of the Week.

Communicator of the Week is written by Ed Staite.



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