BITs and pieces: how the UK led the way in behavioural insights

In 2008, copies of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s now-seminal ‘Nudge’ were passed around the office of the then UK opposition leader, David Cameron, and became the inspiration for the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). In 2015, I have seen the same copy of ‘Nudge’ pass from minister’s office to minister’s office in the Middle East. The extent of interest in behavioural insights and the desire of government officials to apply those insights know seemingly few geographic limits.

This trend may be recent but it is hardly brand new. Behavioural insights or economics is based on the theory that human behaviour can be influenced by gentle prompting or ‘nudging’. Governments are steadily coming to grips with the reality that the behaviour of citizens is less rational, more complex and nuanced than the hyperrational, perfectly optimising, decision-making automaton envisaged by the classical economic models that guide much policymaking. Governments are increasingly awakening to the potential of leveraging behavioural insights to tailor and target their programmes. This shift is underpinned by a variety of factors, including limited funds and the ongoing pressure to innovate and to strengthen public services.

Today, behaviourally informed policies are in place in dozens of jurisdictions and across a variety of domains, but it was the UK that made the biggest initial impact and continues to be the global leader. How did it do it?

Blighty’s boom

The UK’s BIT started work inside the UK Cabinet Office in 2010. It was an environment where money was tight, a new government was taking over and there was a general desire to find new ways to consider policy problems. Put simply, it was an idea whose time had come.

Working across a number of sectors, BIT soon become entrenched in the heart of the government machine. Its approach saw it operate in partnership with other frontline government agencies, ensuring that its work was directly applicable to current government priorities. Take tax collection. Seeking to persuade more people to pay on time, BIT added a single line to a tax letter, saying that most people in their local area had paid up – a small change that increased payment rates by 15%.

BIT goes global

In our interconnected world, it should come as no surprise that policymakers beyond Britain’s borders soon began to take note of what was going on. Indeed, since its 2010 inception, BIT has attracted worldwide interest from governments seeking to establish similar units. However, it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. For starters, policymakers should pause and remember that what works in one country does not automatically work elsewhere.

Examples abound of instances where successful policy initiatives have failed to take root in other locations. New York City’s CompStat, Japan’s National System of Innovation and the UK’s Creative Industries Task Force each spawned a host of imitators, often with little to show for their investment. There is little clarity and even less consensus about which components of BIT’s form and function should be replicated, especially for jurisdictions that lack the UK central government’s prestige or resources.

With this in mind, it seems pertinent to identify the key lessons that policymakers should take away from the BIT experience:

1. Team leadership and support

BIT benefited hugely from a combination of strong internal leadership and political and administrative support from above. Internally, the Team has been led since day one by Dr David Halpern, a professor of social psychology who also has substantial experience in the British civil service, and it has supporters and champions on both sides of the political aisle. Halpern’s professional credentials have also helped BIT establish deep relationships with academics and universities.

The Team also enjoyed support from the highest echelons of the government. The UK’s top civil servant at the time, Sir Gus O’Donnell, was an early advocate and drew on his training as an economist to quickly see the potential. And Prime Minister Cameron, too, was a long-time fan who, as leader of the opposition, saw it as a way to “make things better without spending more money”.

2. Well resourced

BIT has enjoyed substantial freedom in the design and implementation of its trials. Crucially, it has always had the option of introducing trials when the policy problem or topic called for them. Its 2014 study, ‘Applying Behavioural Insights to Organ Donation’, demonstrates the power of this approach: if the best-performing message encouraging people to become organ donors were to be used over the whole year, 96,000 extra organ donor registrations would be completed compared with the control condition.

3. Understand government

Dr Halpern was not the only team member with substantial experience. Indeed, BIT was, and continues to be, populated by staffers blessed with deep knowledge of government, including former members of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit. The Team’s individual networks throughout Whitehall and its members’ understanding of the policy process have undoubtedly complemented its technical expertise.

Although these are just three of many lessons that can be drawn from BIT’s success, they are experiences that policymakers would do well to heed, as the use of behavioural insights is not going away any time soon – anything but. It is now down to governments worldwide to find the right way to embed this new way of doing policy into their political and administrative systems. The prize of enhanced public impact awaits.

Applying behavioural insights to policymaking is an idea whose time has come. Along with its rise to prominence, and the associated wave of bureaucratic enthusiasm, come some important lessons about how the early success of the UK might be repeated elsewhere, and some cautionary observations about the potential challenges ahead on this very promising road.

 

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