A randomista for hire is a dangerous thing

Our research shows that the treated (caged) group was 30% more likely to return home than the non-caged group.

Our research shows that the treated (caged) group was 30% more likely to return home than the control (non-caged) group.

The Behavioural Insights Team¬†is a research unit made up of randomistas who prefer to rely on behavioural economics and psychology to develop and test `nudges’ to achieve certain policy goals. They originally grew out of the Cabinet Office, but eventually went private (the CO has retained a stake in the BIT).

I was always excited by the mere existence of the Behavioural Insights Team – this was the first clear example of government investing in rigorous randomisation to test some of its policies.

That said, while the BIT likely comprises a group of people who want to make the world a better place, they are beholden to their clients. One of these clients is the Home Office, which is currently paying the BIT to find ways to convince illegal migrants to voluntarily leave the UK. From the BIT’s update report:

Increasing voluntary departures of illegal migrants

BIT has been working with the Home Office to consider new measures to help illegal migrants to voluntarily return home, focusing initially on engagement at reporting centres. Reporting centres are seen as an important but underutilised opportunity to prompt illegal migrants to consider whether leaving the UK voluntarily would be a preferable option in their circumstances.

Starting in December 2014, BIT undertook a short piece of ethnographic research at reporting centres across London, reviewing current procedures and interaction points to gain an understanding of the reporting centre experience from the perspective of a member of the reporting population and the reporting agent.

Informed by this, BIT developed several options for Home Office consideration to employ behaviourally informed trials in reporting centres that could encourage higher numbers of voluntary departures from the UK.

At this stage, the precise scope of a trial is still being finalised, with the aim to combine a number of behavioural elements to create a distinct reporting centre experience that encourages members of the reporting population to consider voluntary departure as an alternative to their current situation.

Note that many people who end up in reporting centres are asylum seekers, not just illegal `economic’ migrants. The BIT has another project in the pipeline aimed at targeting business who hire illegal migrants, with a similar end goal of convincing the migrants to voluntarily go home.¬†The Home Office got a lot of push back from trying this before, in the not-too-subtle form of a van driving around telling migrants to go home:


So now the UK government has turned to more insidious methods, aided by a team of randomistas. It’s useful¬†reminder that rigorous, evidence-based policy can be used for stupid, short-sighted¬†policy as well.


*Disclaimer: I once applied to work at the BIT, but dropped out midway through the selection process to work on a project in Oxford.

4 thoughts on “A randomista for hire is a dangerous thing

  1. David Hugh-Jones

    September 21, 2015 at 7:27pm

    Is the claim that governments should not try to enforce migration law, or that they should only do so by actually arresting people?

    I think you are jumping from “I disagree with the law” to “the law ought not to be enforced”.

  2. Matt

    September 24, 2015 at 8:19am


    Thanks for your comment. It is a combination of several things:

    (1) For some of this research, this isn’t about just enforcing the law, it is reducing cost for people working through the current legal system. Note that these experiments would be conducted at reporting centres, so these are already people who are on some level already interacting with the government, typically as asylum seekers. So this is about convincing people who are perhaps in the UK illegally but are *legally* applying for asylum to go home instead.

    (2) But the main point of the post was that RCTs – which are particularly beloved by economists at the moment – can also be used the enforce policies that most of us disagree with. So you are right – I disagree with the enforcement of the law, at least under the current rates of migration to the UK

    (3) There is a third issue which I have not touched upon, and that is of research ethics. As Brett notes above, no IRB would eve approach a study which blatantly made some people worse off. We could argue that a nudge makes this more ambiguous, but it’s pretty clear that 99% of those at reporting centres would be better off if they were allowed to stay in the UK.

    (there is a separate suggestion that they experiment with

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