From nudge to sludge: a book, and now an academy and an audit

Sludge: What Stops Us from Getting Things Done and What to Do about It
By Cass R. Sunstein
MIT Press
September 2022, 166 pages

How we became so burdened by red tape and unnecessary paperwork, and why we must do better.

We’ve all had to fight our way through administrative sludge—filling out complicated online forms, mailing in paperwork, standing in line at the motor vehicle registry. This kind of red tape is a nuisance, but, as Cass Sunstein shows in Sludge, it can also impair health, reduce growth, entrench poverty, and exacerbate inequality. Confronted by sludge, people just give up—and lose a promised outcome: a visa, a job, a permit, an educational opportunity, necessary medical help. In this lively and entertaining look at the terribleness of sludge, Sunstein explains what we can do to reduce it.

Because of sludge, Sunstein explains, too many people don’t receive benefits to which they are entitled. Sludge even prevents many people from exercising their constitutional rights—when, for example, barriers to voting in an election are too high. (A Sludge Reduction Act would be a Voting Rights Act.) Sunstein takes readers on a tour of the not-so-wonderful world of sludge, describes justifications for certain kinds of sludge, and proposes “Sludge Audits” as a way to measure the effects of sludge. On balance, Sunstein argues, sludge infringes on human dignity, making people feel that their time and even their lives don’t matter. We must do better.

Cass R. Sunstein is Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School and Chair of the Technical Advisory Group on Behavioral Insights and Sciences at the World Health Organization. He is the author of The Cost-Benefit Revolution, How Change HappensToo Much Information, Sludge (all published by the MIT Press), Nudge (with Richard H. Thaler), and other books.

The OECD is currently exploring the contribution that behavioural science can make to service design by partnering with the Government of New South Wales (NSW) in Australia on an ‘International Sludge Academy’. 

Chiara Varazzani et al. write about it here and redefine sludge in this context as “unjustified frictions in citizens’ interactions with government”.

The concept of ‘sludge’ puts a behavioural lens on a conversation that has previously been focused on administrative burdens, on the one hand, or on user experience, on the other. Grounding our analysis in specific human behaviours helps to bring those perspectives together, by identifying problems, quantifying them, and suggesting solutions.