BIT Coining it – The private profiteering of state-sponsored propaganda

Bitte ein BIT less

All HART articles also on Substack. Please consider a PAID SUBSCRIPTION so we can continue our work. Comments are open so you can join in the conversation.

Once upon a time (2010 to be precise), somewhat unexpectedly in a Rose Garden in Westminster, a bromance blossomed.  The honeymoon couple – call them Cameron and Clegg – fell out of love in short order, but the unhappy union limped on for a fixed term of five years and a day, during which time many a policy decision was made that was neither fish nor fowl, neither blue nor yellow. 

One of the products of this unhappy union was the establishment of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT, aka the ‘Nudge Unit’), created within the Cabinet Office by Prime Minister Cameron’s director of strategy Steve Hilton. Given the entity’s aims to shape and mould the behaviour of society’s denizens by stealth – a nudge here, a nudge there – one might have expected it to lurk in the shadows. 

‘Hiding in plain sight’ might be a more appropriate description.  Listening to recent declarations from senior behavioural scientists that have access to – or are close to – the levers of power, it is only right to raise a few red flags as to the direction of travel. Regular HART bulletin readers will be well acquainted with the leading lights of BIT, their role in the coronapanic debacle and the resulting questions we have asked them regarding the use of nudging on the general population during this time.  

Professor David Halpern, the chief executive and one of the founders of the Behavioural Insights Team, in defending the use of fear-based messaging at the Hallett Global Narrative Promotion Exercise Inquiry, quite publicly used language more befitting a totalitarian regime: “There are times when you do need to cut through… particularly if you think people are wrongly calibrated”. Wrongly calibrated? Let us hope that the powers that be do not decide to start ridding themselves of troublesome – ‘wrongly calibrated’ – priests… or dissenting doctors, for that matter. 


Quite rightly, Esther McVey MP has “ask[ed] the question: “was it ethical to deploy covert psychological strategies on the British people?”.

Halpern’s comments above contradict his own previous statements warning of the misuse of behavioural science tools and the need for clear ethical oversight.  Gary Sidley, retired psychologist and also a member of HART and PANDA, has recently published a paper in Self & Society entitled ‘UK Government Use of Behavioural Science Strategies in Covid-Event Messaging’, containing a more in-depth review of some of the more egregious fear-mongering campaigns that were weaponised during 2021 such as the ‘look them in the eyes’ (LTITE) campaign. Halpern has distanced himself from involvement with LTITE (a claim at least in part validated by Sidley’s research which identifies others – including Matt Hancock, a senior Cabinet Office civil servant and a coterie of in-house behavioural scientists – as being key protagonists of this particular outrage), but he is directly implicated in other horror shows from this period, for example the inexplicable and exceedingly unscientific introduction of mandatory community masking in the UK during the summer of 2020. This is all the more surprising as Professor David Halpern, one of the founders of BIT, has previously identified the need for ethical oversight: he has summarised this problem with the pithy phrase “who nudges the nudgers?”, a variation on the ‘who watches the watchmen? theme.  Yet at no point during the worst excesses of the authoritarian Coronavirus Act 2020 regime did any senior member of BIT publicly question the ethics of what the government was doing, despite having ample media opportunities to do so.


It is only right, therefore, to hold BIT – and its owners and leadership – to account.  So who and what is BIT?  What does it do, who is it answerable to and who are the beneficiaries?

BIT can conceivably claim divine right-to-rule legitimacy inasmuch as it can trace its origins back to GOD, that is, Gus O’Donnell, Cabinet Secretary to the Blair, Brown and Coalition administrations from 2005 to 2011, who commissioned the MINDSPACE report: “Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy” from the Institute of Government.  This led to the formation – within the Cabinet Office – of the Behavioural Insights Team, aka the ‘Nudge Unit’, led by Professor Halpern (one of the MINDSPACE authors) and Owain Service.  Regarded with a healthy degree of scepticism at first by media outlets such as the Guardian, it nevertheless garnered acceptance within the governmental machine amidst many claimed successes, such as improving compliance with timely tax return completion.  Tax isn’t necessarily taxing, however, and success in that department does not mean behavioural psychologists are omnipotent, or even harmless. There has been criticism of the intrusive – and manipulative nature – of the ‘nudging’ process, which Baroness Fox has described as ‘playing mind games with the public’.

It is no surprise that a government might wish its citizens to do a particular thing, or think a particular thought, but Fox – and other critics – make a valid point: whether taxpayers’ funds should be utilised to such ends is an entirely reasonable question.  What happens if the behavioural scientists were to successfully nudge a large (and metaphorical, of course) plague of lemmings (who would have thought the collective noun would be so apposite?!) to take a “small step for a rodent … and a great leap towards a lofty future for all furry creatures”? Needless to say (of course!) such a great leap can be marketed as being for the greater good of the carrion feeder population…

This may sound like an absurd allegory, but – bringing matters down to earth with a bump (in all senses of the word) – what if, for example, the FDA had in 1960 succumbed to intense pressure to license Thalidomide for use in the USA?  Even that was a close-run thing – a single reviewer, Frances Oldham Kelsey, stood firm in the face of intense pressure from vested interests.  Had she not, one can assume that the terrible damage done (limited to babies in Europe) by that drug would have been extended to a much larger number of victims if it had also been distributed widely in the USA.  In 2024, what checks and balances are in place to ensure such a scenario – whereby a paternalistic government might have ‘nudged’ the use of Thalidomide for the good of pregnant mothers – could never come to pass? 

Again, Halpern has previously paid lip service: the use of ‘nudging’ “is a particular problem in areas relating to public health”, but he states that “the BIT team is always careful not to claim anything that cannot be proved to be true”. 

Yet Halpern – and the wider BIT team – seem to have been at the epicentre of much of what transpired during the coronapanic debacle.  Sidley’s research has uncovered evidence that contradicts Halpern’s statement above.  Where are the ethical boundaries? How many of these were crossed?  Is it in any way acceptable for those responsible for shaping public opinion to also get to set the agenda as to what constitutes the ‘greater good’? How can such people and organisations be kept accountable to the electorate, especially if they have managed to lodge themselves within the safe cocoon of a quango (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation)?


This is exactly where BIT now finds itself, ‘nestled’ inside Nesta, the National Endowment for Science, Technology & the Arts, a UK charity.  Following BIT’s spin-out out from the Cabinet Office, in 2014 Nesta took a 30% stake in a newly formed company, Behavioural Insights Limited (“BI Ltd”), in exchange for a £1.9m funding and benefits-in-kind package.  Halpern – having been remunerated from the public purse via GOD’s (the civil servant – not the Almighty) MINDSPACE commission and during the Nudge Unit’s existence within the Cabinet Office – and co-founder Owain Service received shares (7.5% and 5% ownership respectively).  Just over a fifth of the shares were allocated to an employee ownership trust, with the UK Treasury (the taxpayer!) holding the remaining shares:

The financial performance of the spun out private company has been good, as can be gleaned from companies house filings.  As an independent agent, BI Ltd is free to seek export markets, and while it remains fully attached to & suckling at the government teat, at least some of its growth over the last decade has come from a material export market. It should be noted that UK taxpayers may still be on the hook for this expenditure, as some of the contracts were won via DfID (the former Department for International Development). The goal of that department had been “to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty“. In its annual accounts, BI Ltd declares that “it remains, substantially, a day-rate consultancy from a financial perspective” meaning that its primary costs are people, and that the company’s business model is to provide skilled staff that are outsourced to its customers.

There seems to be a degree of circularity to the moneymaking nature of BI Ltd which calls into question whether the various protagonists should have been given such large equity stakes in what is essentially an outsourced provider to the government machine.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, therefore, to find out that Nesta acquired full control of BI Ltd in 2021 for c. £15.4 million.  While the valuation multiples for this transaction are – at a cursory inspection – nominally in line with the multiples one might expect to see on an arm’s length basis (though the stonking loss in 2022 indicates that previous year profits may have been artificially high), it should be noted that BI Ltd was in receipt of substantial contracts from central government in the immediate run-up to the acquisition:

  • … the Cabinet Office allocated up to £4 million to the BIT for a three-year contract (2019–22) to provide ‘Behavioural Insights Consultancy and Research Services’ so as to furnish the heart of government with ‘frictionless access to behavioural insights to match central priorities. Clearly, Covid communications would have been the priority during this time period. As for the DHSC, they paid BIT £1 million for a 13-months contract (1 March 2020 to 31 March 2021) for ‘Various work for Test, Trace, Contain and Enable agenda’.
  • Halpern … says that in February 2020, the team’s primary brief was to advise the Government on how to ‘communicate Covid-related messages so that the public recognised the severity of the virus’.
  • In December 2020 the BIT and the National Health Service (NHS) collaborated to produce a document (later redacted) titled ‘Optimising vaccination roll out – the dos & don’ts of messaging’.

You could be forgiven for thinking that Halpern has a doppelganger who has taken a different route in life.  But no: this is the same Halpern – working for the same Nudge Unit – who stated, as quoted above, that the use of ‘nudging’ “is a particular problem in areas relating to public health” and that “the BIT team is always careful not to claim anything that cannot be proved to be true”.

While one might take comfort from the fact the transaction yielded £5m-odd for the Treasury, this is obviously a drop in the ocean compared to the c. £300-400 billion-odd cost of the coronapanic debacle.  If reported numbers are directionally correct, the price paid by Nesta resulted in a gross consideration (payment) to Halpern of over £1.1m in cash for his stake, with Owain Service grossing over £750,000. Roughly a hundred and fifty staff – mostly behavioural scientists and support staff – received individual payments from the aggregate proceeds (£3.5 million) allocated to the employee ownership trust.  In 2012, in the early heady days of the Nudge Unit, Halpern included the following slide in one of his presentations extolling the virtues of his group’s activities within the Cabinet Office:

It is somewhat galling to learn now, over a decade later, that this work was to culminate in fulsome support for some of the costly and unscientific excesses of the coronapanic debacle (noting, in particular, Halpern’s involvement in the promotion of community masking in the summer of 2020 and the £1m contract to develop that corker of a success story, test & trace).  Not only did these excesses cause huge damage at the time, they also substantially impoverished the nation. 

Rich nations are happier; poor nations substantially worse off..

But richer nudgers are, presumably, much happier with their personal lot.  

And don’t ask who is nudging these nudgers, or who they are answerable to.

Please follow and like us:
Visit Us