End Of Area For Evidence-based Government

King’s College London

David Halpern resigns from the Behavioural Insights Team


The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has today announced that David Halpern will be stepping down as President and Founding Director of the team, which he has led since its creation in 2010. David has shepherded BIT from its early days as a tiny team in the UK Cabinet Office, through its spin-out into a social purpose company; a merger with Nesta; and through to becoming a global leader in the application of behavioural science to policy and practice, with a presence on every inhabited continent.

I have said before that David is the Michael Jordan of behavioural insights. An unbelievably inspiring and talented practitioner who nonetheless makes for a terrible case study for those seeking to "do" behavioural insights. This is because there is only one David, and any attempt to replicate him is doomed to failure. David's academic background and credibility make him able to stand alongside globally leading intellectuals as an equal, while his unrelenting pragmatism means that he can see the opportunities that most academics cannot to put research into practice. He can see how this, seemingly obscure, academic paper, can actually be used to change the way a service is designed. He is also a consummate public servant; turning his hand to whatever the biggest issues of the day are, and working within the system of government to achieve real change. David's three personas - as an intellectual, a public servant, and a visionary - have meant that over multiple decades and seemingly countless administrations of various political flavours, he has been able to achieve untold impacts.

David's impacts have not solely been limited to his own actions, however. While there is only one of him, he has worked tirelessly to encourage and develop the two movements of which he is a central member. In the behavioural insights world, he has given his time to help new teams get set up; to support capacity building in governments around the word - lending his voice and his weight to help new units get set up. As he has often said, if BIT goes out of business because everyone else can do BI perfectly well themselves, that would not be a bad outcome.

This would be more than enough for a life's work, but for David, it is only part of the story. As the UK Government's first What Works National Advisor, he has been instrumental in setting up the UK's What Works Centres and encouraging the same evidence based policy movement around the world. His passionate advocacy for the often dry topic of finding out "what works", has seen the movement flourish, transforming whole areas of policy with the introduction of randomised controlled trials in areas where they had previously been unheard of.

This combination of efforts means that David, someone who few have heard of beyond the circles of policy wonks and academics, has had a positive impact on the lives of hundreds of millions of people to date - with billions more surely in the pipeline. One of those most influenced is me. I joined BIT in the Cabinet Office on a three month secondment in early 2012, and didn't leave for seven years. Thanks to David's encouragement and support, I was able to pursue an unusual career path and learn how to achieve a fraction of his influence. My plan to become a teaching fellow in microeconomics was replaced under his guidance with an imperative to do things differently, and to pursue impact above all else. I cannot count the number of occasions where David has held my feet to the fire, encouraging me to think bigger, do better, and to be less limited and restricted in my thinking. I cannot tell you what the counterfactual of my life without David would have been, but I can say for certain that it would have been worse, more pedestrian, and less fulfilling.

I am conscious that this reads a little like an obituary - which it categorically is not. David has many chapters left to write yet, and so those of us interested in making the world a better place should watch with interest. Where he goes next, impact will surely follow.

Michael Sanders is a Professor of Public Policy in the Policy Institute at Kings. He was previously the first Chief Scientist of the Behavioural Insights Team and the founding Chief Executive of What Works for Children's Social Care, one of the UK's network of What Works Centres.

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Michael Sanders

Professor of Public Policy

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