Change makers: inside the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team

A glance through the numbers is enough to tell you why British policymakers have so wholeheartedly embraced the work of David Halpern’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). Like many other countries, the UK is undergoing an extensive programme of public sector spending reductions and, at the same time, demand for public services of high quality remains high. Halpern’s team have helped address this seemingly impossible conundrum.

Bringing forward hundreds of millions of pounds in tax collection; helping jobseekers back into work 20% faster than traditional methods; signing up an extra 100,000 organ donors a year; helping 20% more ethnic minority applicants into the police; and reducing the further education dropout rates by a third are just a few of their examples – there are plenty more to choose from.

Halpern is undoubtedly proud of this track record – one that has helped see the team grow from a small group to more than 60 employees in just a few years – but he recalls that the early days were shaped by the knowledge that success was far from guaranteed. “I used to work in the Strategy Unit for Tony Blair and one of the papers I led on was on personal responsibility and behavioural approaches,” he explains. “This was in 2003 and it was a disaster; the media reaction was a disaster and it was one of those storms that just blow up. The main criticism was that it was nanny state on speed and it played very badly and it was seared on my soul. I was really aware of the fact that BIT could fail.”

Beginnings

Despite such blips, there is little doubt that Halpern’s previous experiences in Downing Street served as an ideal preparation for his current role. Starting work in 2010 inside 10 Downing Street, BIT was the world’s first government institution dedicated to the application of behavioural sciences, one that benefited from the backing of senior stakeholders – from the prime minister downwards. “It was fantastic that we were able to assemble the right mix of political and administrative support,” he says.

This bedrock of support has never wavered, perhaps because the results were so positive. Looking over the range of programmes that BIT has been involved in – including more than 150 randomised controlled trials over every area of domestic policy – Halpern pinpoints the collaboration with the UK’s network of job centres as a key source of pride. The project was underpinned by the insight that encouraging claimants to make specific commitments to future activities, linked to their daily routines, helps them follow through on their job search intentions. The success of the pilot scheme has led to the retraining of 25,000 jobcentre advisors and the approach is now implemented in every job centre, with hundreds of thousands of claimants already benefiting.

“The job centre work always stands out to me,” reflects Halpern. “It’s complicated – it’s more than just tweaking or adjusting some wording. You have to change someone else’s behaviour (the job centre advisor’s behaviour as well as the claimant’s) and we really didn’t know if it would do anything at all. And so to find that it really did lead to significant results in terms of getting people back to work faster, and be replicated with even stronger results in Australia and Singapore, is very nice. After all, why wouldn’t you want to try and design a process that enables someone to get back to work faster? It’s just such a great result on so many levels and really illustrates the power of the approach.”

Another high-profile area has been BIT’s involvement with e-cigarettes, something which has not been without controversy. Strongly believing that they provide a valuable tool in the quest to persuade more people to give up smoking – it is much easier to substitute a similar behaviour than eradicate an entrenched one – Halpern and his colleagues have played a huge role in shaping the new regulatory framework.

“Some quarters of the public health community were, and remain, very worried about e-cigarettes,” he admits. “But it was just one of those examples where we felt that government had previously been on the wrong side of the argument. We knew it would be a big battle but felt it was the right way to take it. It’s not done and dusted, but Public Health England recently did a report estimating that more than a million extra smokers have quit in the UK as a result of e-cigarettes. What would you pay for a drug that could do that? It’s off the scale – tens of billions.”

Spreading the word

Five years on from BIT’s creation, the unit is no longer part of government. Instead, it is a not-for-profit social venture with the Cabinet Office and the innovation charity NESTA. The new organisational structure has been designed to permit BIT to spread its efforts across the public sector as a whole – in the UK and abroad – rather than just focus on central government “We are still substantially owned by government,” Halpern points out. “We are a ‘social purpose’ company and this has enabled us to work in other bits of the public sector. If you’re based in Downing Street or the Cabinet Office, it is very difficult to take commissions from other parts of the public sector or take on extra people in a time of austerity. If you want the adoption to happen quite widely then you have to be able to respond to that.”

In between overseeing the move and his ‘day job’ running BIT, Halpern has also penned a new book, Inside the Nudge Unit, which is an inside account of the last five years. Halpern says he was motivated by the need to be open and clear about the unit’s work and ambitions. “I feel quite strongly that if governments want to use these kinds of approaches, then they need to be open and transparent about it,” he says. “There are also limits to how much you can do and say with a press release when you publish an individual result, as there are lots of finer details involved. And we’re always interested in spreading the approach more generally and particularly across the public services.”

Thanks to similar outreach efforts, the use of behavioural sciences in policymaking has become increasingly prevalent around the world – a fact that Halpern describes as a positive, but one laced with potential drawbacks. “I’ve had ministers congratulate me on a nudge but actually it wasn’t us who did it,” he reveals. “In many ways this is a good thing but on the other hand if it is used poorly or insensitively then I think it is a major danger. The other thing that hangs over all of us in this field is that there are lots of other people and organisations nudging, and not necessarily for good. If you put the knowledge out there, then it can be used for good and bad, and you have to hope that people will use it for the former and not for the latter.”

That said, it is clear that Halpern remains hugely gratified by the changes that his team have helped bring about – not only in the results but also within the machinery of government. “One of the biggest legacies of the introduction of behavioural sciences into government is that it has made credible the experimental approach,” he says. “To incorporate experimental methods deeply into policymaking is a fundamental game-changer. We’re kind of in the dark ages on most policy and professional practices, and apart from a tiny percentage we don’t really know if things are truly effective, and we certainly don’t know if a small variation would make things more effective.”

FURTHER READING

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  • Micro to macro. Insights from the behavioural sciences are increasingly being applied to policy challenges around the world. A pioneer of this trend is the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team – its managing director, Owain Service, tells us about their experiences
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