“This comes down to a new way of creating policy,” says Owain Service. The managing director of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is looking back on five years of rapid progress, five years where insights from the behavioural sciences have become increasingly embedded into the UK’s policymaking process, as well as in governments elsewhere.
Since its creation in 2010, BIT has grown to more than 60 staff. It has evolved from an individual government unit into a social purpose company which has now overseen 150 randomised controlled trials across UK domestic policy. Service says that underpinning these developments has been the recognition that small changes can lead to big improvements – a fact no doubt welcomed by ministers burdened with reduced budgets.
“Tinkering with existing systems is something that some people see as a drawback of our approach,” says Service. “But we say that if you’re willing to continually introduce incremental changes, and you’re able to test these to see which aspect is most effective, you can start to make big improvements to the way that you deliver services.”
Prior to moving to BIT, Service served as a deputy director of the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit (PMSU), where he led programmes of work on public service reform, education and energy and developed the UK’s first National Security Risk Assessment. Behavioural insights, which is based on introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy to improve outcomes, involves a markedly different approach to policymaking from any that he had encountered before.
“At the PMSU we would often be set interesting and challenging long-term goals, such as how to reform local government,” he recalls. “In some respects, when we set BIT up, we consciously turned the PMSU model on its head. Rather than starting at the macro level, we often started with a micro bit of process (like the letter HMRC sends out). But in looking at these details, we started to understand much more about how the system as a whole operated, which itself helps us to support more strategic thinking.”
A good example of how the approach has been used is in reforming the way that government seeks to get more people back to work. “Our involvement with job centres started with a single job centre, where we redesigned the process someone goes through when signing on for social security support for the first time,” explains Service. “We found that encouraging claimants to link specific commitments to future activities with their day-to-day routines made them more likely to follow through on their job search intentions. These insights have now been integrated into the operations of every job centre across the country.”
The UK is far from alone in deploying insights from the behavioural sciences to boost its policymaking process. BIT now has an office in Sydney, Australia, which also leads its work in Singapore. There is another BIT office in New York, which is working across US cities as part of its programme of work with Bloomberg Philanthropies. “We have started to help other governments to build their own capabilities in this field,” says Service. “The White House now has a team focused on behavioural insights, as does the German Chancellor and the World Bank, the OECD and the European Commission. So there is a genuine burgeoning interest around the world.”
This rising global hunger for behavioural insights is clearly a testament to governments’ enduring need to strengthen their public services – a need particularly acute when financial resources remain limited. Service believes that the mindset has now shifted to be open to other viewpoints and perspectives. “It is about the things we can do, working in partnership with those who deliver the services, to make a difference now, and what this can teach us about how the system as a whole operates,” he says.
That this recognition is now increasingly accepted among policymakers, continues Service, should be viewed as BIT’s primary achievement – more so than any specific policy or intervention. “We have managed to take a set of ideas that in 2010 were seen as a bit gimmicky and moved them into the mainstream,” he says. “In UK government departments, everyone knows what behavioural insights is, and a lot of the civil servants who work there will have applied them to their individual policy area – which simply wasn’t the case before we were established.”
This success is twinned with the increasing desire for BIT to oversee and test policies before they are implemented. “We have helped show that an experimental approach can be used within the context of policy,” says Service. “First we draw on behavioural sciences and then we run randomised evaluations to see precisely how effective these interventions are when put into practice. Increasingly we’re finding a lot of interest in testing and trialling – independent of the behavioural observations we are making. These two developments – drawing on ideas from the behavioural sciences and then testing and trialling new interventions – I believe will be the real legacy of BIT in the months and years to come.”
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