Moves to harness insights on behaviour to shape policy and its delivery
Persuading Ministers, and indeed departments, to change policy and do something differently is always a challenge. But behavioural scientists are beginning to understand what levers they need to pull to sell new ideas and insights that might lead to substantial changes in ministers and departmental thinking and ways of doing things, while making savings.
The Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit’ was set up by the Coalition government in 2010 backed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg .Its mission was , informed by the latest science on behaviour , to design policy and delivery mechanisms . Many of the assumptions made by government around how and why people make decisions are simply wrong. The Nudge Unit set out to transform the approach of at least two major government departments, to inject a new understanding of human behaviour across government, and to deliver a ten -fold return on its cost, all within two years. If it failed in these, then it would be wound up. In fact, It succeeded .The Insights Team not only flourishes (within the Cabinet Office) but is even advising foreign governments now on how to implement behaviourally informed policies.
Its main objectives now are;
making public services more cost-effective and easier for citizens to use;
improving outcomes by introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy; and wherever possible, enabling people to make ‘better choices for themselves’
Richard Thaler and Cass Sunsteins 2007 book’ Nudge’ , originally called ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ ,a clunkier and altogether less attractive title, was such a success because it made the world of behavioural science, which had crossed over into economic thinking as well, more accessible and of practical worth to policy makers.
Through small, incremental adjustments in the nuts and bolts of government informed by insights into human behaviour, you can get people to respond more readily, and to ‘nudge’ them to make choices that protect their interests but also improve the returns for the government and its agents saving time money and adding value.
Whether its encouraging people to pay tax owed, or parking fines, or to insulate their houses, to save energy, to start contributing to personal pension schemes that will benefit them, to filling in applications to college, to re-entering the labour market , to seeking childcare support – there are a myriad ways in which simple and nuanced adjustments can make a huge difference to take up. Even if you only increase take up by, say, 5%, for example, the financial savings can be huge.
Both political and economic theory posits that individuals make rational choices that benefit them. But the reality is that frequently people don’t make sensible choices, and for a number of reasons. They don’t have enough time, they have too many choices, there is too much hassle, or friction involved , the form they have to fill in is confusing etc. Science has found that If you make it easy and attractive for people and show that others are doing it too, then you stand a greater chance of success . Computer generated letters that are de-personalised really don’t often work, yet they are churned out by government and business, regardless. Sanctions and threats often don’t work either, in the way you want them to work, and the same goes for financial incentives. Social pressure, because we are ‘social ‘animals, after all, is often much more effective. Personalising messages and telling people what others are doing is more likely to work.
Behavioural scientists help us to understand this esoteric area.
At the most basic level if you personalise a letter and make it easy to understand and adopt the same approach to the forms you send out, removing the hassle that goes with so many, you will almost certainly secure better returns. Better and more effective communications is part of the equation of course. But there is much more to it than that.
The BIT is into piloting small projects, across government and using randomised control trials to test the outcomes. Simple ideas. like opting everyone in for pension schemes (ie the default position) but also giving them the choice of opting out, means that a vast majority will not opt out, because there is the hassle factor and friction involved. Ie you have to positively make a decision to opt out. These initiatives not only pay for themselves but generate significant returns on top of it..
The BIT unit have produced a pneumonic checklist to help policy makers to influence behaviour-EAST. Make it Easy. Attractive. Harness Social Influence. And make it Timely, choosing a time when people are most likely to be receptive.
Helping people to make the right decisions through re-framing policies and processes to take into account how they actually behave and make decisions is eminently sensible. David Halpern, who has done so much to persuade Ministers to invest in the idea that behavioural insights really can deliver more efficiencies and savings puts it thus:
‘We seek to introduce a more realistic, empirically grounded model of what influences human behaviour and decision making’. Halpern sees behavioural insight approaches as ‘ a tool or lens through which to view all policy interventions and can be used to subtly refashion conventional policy tools.’
But how might this approach be used in education?
We know that many early childhood interventions can be effective and improve young children’s life opportunities- what about nudges to ensure parents are more actively engaged in these, and earlier. How about a nudge to encourage those with mental health issues, to seek support, or a nudge to encourage the most disadvantaged students and their parents to apply to universities or high quality apprenticeships . Indeed, there is also surely scope for nudging young pupils to make appropriate choices of routes into FE ,HE, training and employment(some useful work has already been done at Jobcentres by BIT) and in studying appropriate qualifications to improve their life opportunities .Or, perhaps, targeting those in the NEET category to secure engagement in education training or a job. These and other areas surely could be susceptible to nudges that will benefit the individuals concerned, save costs, reduce waste and benefit the economy. What’s not to like?
Well, there are some worries that the government will nudge citizens to do things that are not necessarily in their interests, but safeguards are possible here and indeed so far appear to be operating reasonably effectively.
At present most of the insights have produced incremental changes but it is probably only a matter of time before an insight delivers revolutionary change in the policy arena. Arguably recent pension reforms are revolutionary.
BIT has harnessed evidence and delivered results that have cost little to implement and delivered substantial measurable returns. They have also shown a welcome willingness to evaluate what they do, rigorously and ethically,(RCTs) using outside auditing and are prepared to admit mistakes with equanimity, to adapt and to learn. Above all they have managed to shift an initially sceptical establishment to a position where ministers and civil servants are now prepared to engage with the BIT in the early design of policy initiatives.
Watch this space
See Inside the Nudge Unit-How Small Changes can make big differences-David Halpern –WH Allen 2015