Why policy-makers should care about behavioural science: Supriya Syal

As someone who likes ‘nudge’ and related behavioural approaches, liked this article for the examples it cited, both outside and inside Canada:

Classic examples of behavioural interventions for the public sector include measures that help people save more for retirement, consume less electricity, be more likely to pay taxes, sign up for organ donations and get jobs. But the application of behavioural science to policy-making is becoming increasingly diversified around the world. For instance, the Copenhagen Airport in Denmark, in partnership with iNudgeyou (a Denmark-based social purpose company), combatted the problem of people smoking just outside terminal entrances by using stickers that guide them to a designated smoking area a few metres away. Instead of telling people what not to do (no-smoking zones near doors), providing guidance on what behaviour is desirable (smoking zones away from doors) proved more effective. In South Africa, the government of the Western Cape, in partnership with Ideas42 (a US-based nonprofit behavioural design and consulting firm) and the University of Cape Town, used a computer-based “HIV risk game” to educate at-risk youth about HIV. Instead of the typical one-off information brochure, a gamification approach that got youth to make repeated decisions about HIV risk and provided immediate feedback about their choices was a more powerful aid for increasing young people’s understanding of such risks. In Australia, Alfred Health (a hospital), working with Deakin University, Monash University, VicHealth and the Behavioural Insights Team (UK), increased healthier food choices in its cafés by using a traffic-light colour system to classify nutritional value and portion sizes of beverages. Instead of telling people about the health costs of sugary beverages, the team marked drinks as red (most unhealthy), amber or green (most healthy), and “red” drinks were simply removed from the displays and self-service refrigerators and placed under the counters — still available for sale, just less obviously so. The total number of beverages that were sold didn’t change, but the sale of unhealthy sugary beverages went down by 28 to 71 percent in a range of trials.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency is successfully using behavioural nudges to get people to pay outstanding taxes and to file their taxes online. The Privy Council Office Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU) is using behavioural insights to help Statistics Canada increase its survey response rates, and to help the Department of National Defence recruit more women into the armed forces. The Innovation Lab at Employment and Social Development Canada has used behavioural insights to help people find jobs and has partnered with the IIU to increase uptake of the Canada Learning Bond among low-income families. And the foremost public sector behavioural insights group in Canada, the Ontario Behavioural Insights Unit, has succeeded in increasing organ donation rates and online licence-plate-sticker renewals using behavioural insights.

Despite these initiatives and widespread academic expertise, support and talent, the public sector application of behavioural science in Canada lags behind that of other comparable nations, and the opportunity to create better outcomes for Canadians through behavioural evidence-based policy is immense. Moreover, the bulk of behavioural-insights policy work in Canada amounts to what one might call repair jobs — it is as if we were retrofitting old buildings to make them work in the modern-day context — and behavioural science interventions are used mainly to improve implementation or compliance with a pre-existing policy. Which is important, no doubt, but we could also be building new structures that benefit from modern advancements and would be much better suited to their users’ needs. Indeed, behavioural science provides powerful tools that could help us get it right at the policy design and formation stages. And, in addition to using behavioural science to design better for the public, we could also be using these insights to design better for public servants. But there are few, if any, applications of behavioural science interventions to organizational decision-making within the Canadian government or the bodies that it regulates, so this is a significant area for exploration.

Some of our greatest challenges today are large-scale, complex problems of public policy, public perception and public action: climate change, vaccinations against infectious diseases, diversity and inclusion of historically marginalized groups, humanitarian crises, to name a few. Behavioural science promises empirically validated solutions that are derived from an understanding of the human beings that make up that “public.” And it rests its propositions on evidence in favour of what works to help people themselves make decisions that are better for them, so they can lead better lives. A pretty irresistible call to arms, wouldn’t you say?

via Why policy-makers should care about behavioural science

Public servants flock to PCO’s first-ever behavioural economics briefing

I am a fan of nudges and Kirkman captures the reality that current politics already incorporate nudges, and so the question is more what kind of nudge is more effective as part of policy and program design, rather than more existential questioning.

As readers already know, I am also a fan of behavioural economics, and found the insights in Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow particularly relevant to policy makers who may not be as aware of their thinking processes as needed:

Elspeth Kirkman, North American head of the Behavioural Insights Team’s head of North American operations, was asked during a presentation how she responds to criticism that she’s involved in “social engineering.” She said governments cannot get away from the fact they have to encourage certain kinds of behaviour from people, so it might as well be done effectively.

“Departments and governments are already nudging people in terms of how they present information to them, how they ask them to do things, how they structure their defaults, and all we’re doing really is being mindful about that,” she said. “We’re saying, actually, let’s just understand what the implication in the way that we’re structuring that choice is.”

Eldar Shafir, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, told the audience that sometimes more than a “nudge” is needed when it comes to public policy.

“I’m a big fan of nudges … but nudges are a very modest attempt to interfere minimally, often at a very low cost, when you’re politically somewhat helpless, in ways that that help people,” he said.

“But there’s a lot more than that. And if you think about what policy does throughout, whether it’s the design of emergency rooms or what it takes to make a nation healthy and happy, there are profound psychological questions that lie at the core of what we do.”

When asked to elaborate in what qualifies as a nudge and what’s seen as more, Mr. Shafir noted how buildings are often designed—in terms of where stairs, elevators, and parking lots are placed—to promote physical activity, and he feels buildings that are constructed in ways to encourage certain behaviours represent the kind of policy that goes beyond nudges.

Ms. Kirkman talked about an EAST model—which stands for easy, attractive, social, and timely—for creating conditions for public compliance with government policies.

She talked about using plain language and less “legalese” to make it easier for people to understand government communications. She used an example of a U.S. city that had an unfortunate practice of sending out very technically worded letters to homeowners whose properties did not meet municipal standards.

“The letter actually starts with: ‘According to Chapter 156 and/or Chapter 155 and/or Chapter 37 in the [municipal] ordinances process, we have found your property to be in violation of inspection.’ And it kind of just goes on and on and on like this, and it doesn’t actually say, ‘Hey, you need to fix your property and here’s what’s wrong with it.’ ”

In terms of making things attractive, Ms. Kirkman used an example how different styles of texting unemployed people from a job centre in the Britain to inform them about a new supermarket that was holding a job fair. She said 10 per cent of the people notified would typically attend such a non-mandatory event. However, when people’s individual names were used in the message, that increased to 15 per cent. When the message appeared to come from the unemployed people’s employment advisers, it increased to 17 per cent. Finally, that rate increased to 26 per cent when the individuals were told their advisers had booked them a time-slot at this event.

The social aspect of encouraging certain actions is shown by Mr. Treusch’s example of publicizing how most people pay their taxes, Ms. Kirkman said.

Another factor is who conveys the message, she said. She recalled how the British government once sent letters signed by the chief medical officer that advised certain physicians to prescribe antibiotics less often, and the campaign was a success. She said the message would have been less effective with this particular audience if it came from the health minister. These physicians were also told how the majority of their peers were prescribing fewer antibiotics, she added.

An example of timeliness focused on a police force Britain that was found to be much less ethnically diverse than the community it serves. Research ultimately uncovered that most applicants of minority ethnicities were failing an online test in which they were asked how they would react, as a police officer, to certain situations.

Ms. Kirkman said it’s believed the effect of “stereotype threat” was at work, where people who are part of groups that have negative stereotypes tend to perform worse in certain instances if reminded of those stereotypes just before the task.

She said when the wording of the email asking applicants to take this test was changed to be “warmer” and contain a preamble asking them to think about what it would mean to their community if they became a police officer, the gap in success in the test between white applicants and others was closed.

Source: Public servants flock to PCO’s first-ever behavioural economics briefing |