The behavioural insight hothouse
How the Cabinet Office’s ‘Nudge Unit’ has grown to influence policy and strategy development across government – and beyond. By Jonathan Knott.
As controversies over UK government schemes like Workfare and Universal Credit show, there are no easy answers when it comes to getting people back into work. So when a JobCentre Plus in Loughton, Essex, found it could noticeably improve results by making some straightforward, inexpensive changes to procedures, people sat up and took notice.
Administrative processes for some jobseekers were reorganised so that customers talked about getting back to work on their first day - and conversations focused on the two weeks ahead, rather than those just past. People still claiming benefits after eight weeks were asked to take part in expressive writing and ‘strengths identification’ exercises. The result? Thirteen weeks after signing on, people in this group were 15-20% more likely than a control group to be back in work. The scheme is now being expanded across Essex and in other parts of the country.
It may be early days, but for now it’s another success for the government’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT). When the small team (originally nine members of staff, now 13) was set up within the Cabinet Office by the coalition government in 2010, with the remit of applying the insights of behavioural economics and psychology to public policy, it met with some scepticism. But tangible results in areas ranging from tax collection to loft insulation have since helped it gain much more favourable coverage from media across the political spectrum.
Peter John, a professor of public policy at University College London (UCL) who sits on BIT’s Academic Advisory Panel, says that the creation of the unit reflects a trend within academia that has migrated into public policy.
“Government has always been interested in people’s behaviour,” says John. “What’s new is a more intelligent and evidence-based approach to behaviour change, incorporating insights from behavioural economics, psychology and neuroscience. There’s a greater focus on the micro causal processes that drive people’s behaviour - and an awareness that small changes can potentially have large impacts.”
Break from the norms
The financial crisis of 2008 was perhaps the most glaring indication yet that the assumptions of classical economics - which treats people as conscious, rational and self-interested decision- makers - frequently do not hold true in real life.
John says that the work of thinkers like Daniel Kahneman (author of 2011’s Thinking Fast and Slow) has been important in establishing the idea of the brain’s ‘automatic system’ to help us understand why we don’t always make good choices, even when we should know better. Another influential text is Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book Nudge (from where BIT’s nickname, the ‘Nudge Unit’, derives). Maintaining that “there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ design”, the authors argue that (often simple) redesigns of environments can produce more desirable behaviours without the need for legislation.
A notorious example came from Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where adding pictures of houseflies onto the urinals reduced spillage by 80%. Thaler and Sunstein dub their approach “libertarian paternalism”. It presumes to know what is good for people, yet it does not involve any actual coercion.
Thaler reportedly impressed David Cameron when the pair met in 2008, and is now an advisor to BIT. ‘Nudging’ naturally appeals to a cash- strapped government that values individual freedom - but the shift goes beyond party politics. One key document was actually commissioned by the preceding Labour government. MINDSPACE, published by the Institute for Government think tank and the Cabinet Office in 2010, explains
behavioural insight principles and suggests how they can be applied to policy.
MINDSPACE: The Behavioural Insight Bible
An influential report, originally commissioned by the Labour government, explains the central principles of behavioural insight using the MINDSPACE acronym (Messenger, Incentives, Norms, Defaults, Salience, Priming, Affect, Commitments, and Ego). ‘Messenger’, for example, is the idea that people are influenced by the source of information; ‘priming’ that subconscious cues can affect our receptivity to an idea, while ‘ego’ explains how we do things that make us feel good about ourselves. MINDSPACE is regarded by many as the best practical overview of applying behavioural insight to policy-making.
Then 2012 brought us Learn, Test, Adapt, authored with academics including Dr Ben Goldacre, which explains the fundamental importance of randomised controlled trials to developing evidence-based policy, addresses common objections, and provides advice on setting them up.
“I think it’s fair to say that Britain is ahead of the game,” says John. No other country’s government has a dedicated behavioural insight team, and the coalition agreement’s reference to “shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past” makes its intentions clear.
More than a nudge
Despite BIT’s growing reputation, the old doubts about ‘nudging’ - that it was manipulative, flaky, or simply an excuse to cut back the state - have never quite been shaken off. And they resurfaced with a vengeance in April. At the behest of the Nudge Unit, jobseekers were being asked to fill out a survey designed to “identify candidates’ strengths”, or face the withdrawal of benefits. But the questionnaire was denounced as a sham when bloggers exposed just how tenuous was the link between the answers provided and the results.
“That was really quite shocking,” says Jonathan Rowson of the RSA think tank. “At best it’s a randomised controlled trial without the proper informed consent. At worst it’s just manipulating people who are very vulnerable, without necessarily even helping them.”
Rowson is director of the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, where the approach to behavioural insight differs from ‘nudging’ - and is arguably less susceptible to the criticisms it commonly faces.
Different approaches to behaviour change
A ‘nudge’ approach often targets people’s automatic behaviours without them realising, but other approaches to behavioural insight engage people more consciously. A 2009 academic paper, Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think (subsequently expanded into a book) argued that engaging people’s rational faculties (for example, through community budgeting) could also be an effective way of changing behaviour.
In between these two approaches, the RSA has developed the ‘steer’ concept, which acknowledges the role of automatic and habitual factors in behaviour, but encourages people to consciously recognise and control these.
The latest paper from the RSA’s Social Brain Centre, Divided Brain, Divided World, arguably moves beyond this again. Taking its inspiration from a book by psychiatrist Ian McGilchrist, it asks whether many of the modern world’s problems relate to the domination of the left hemisphere of the brain over the right hemisphere at a cultural level, leading to an excessive desire to measure, control and quantify at the expense of holistic insight.
The centre has worked on encouraging fuel efficiency with taxi drivers and on decision-making with the police. Rowson sums up the approach as: “Giving people an understanding of their own nature, and letting them use that to shape their own lives.”
Most BIT-influenced policies, to date, have been classic ‘nudges’, but some major projects aim at more conscious behaviour change. BIT works with the department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) on the Midata project (part of the Consumer Empowerment Strategy), under which consumers will be able to receive their transactional data back from companies in a portable, machine-readable format.
BIS hopes that Midata will help transform attitudes to personal data, allowing it to be put to creative uses by new businesses. But the project is equally motivated by the idea that a greater access to data will give people a better understanding of their behaviour, and help them make better decisions.
For a department like BIS, BIT’s role has been to connect it with “key thinkers such as Professor Thaler and contacts who run similar initiatives abroad,” says a spokesman, while also helping the department “more easily identify and speak to leading businesses who could be instrumental in creating Midata services”.
As well as providing direct advice, BIT disseminates its ideas through conferences, seminars and workshops. UCL’s John says that the unit’s strength lies in bringing together the wisdom of academic research and practical nous gleaned from the coalface: “It’s often the people on the ground who have the insights,” says John. “It’s a strategy of using whatever science is available, but also utilising a common pool of knowledge.”
The costs of implementing interventions always fall on the government bodies that BIT works with. John says that much of the unit’s role involves steering and joining up the dots. “The team can’t actually deliver or monitor behavioural intervention itself,” he explains. “It has a facilitative role to encourage departments or agencies to do the trials themselves, but give them support about how they could be designed and evaluated, and how evidence may be brought to bear. Some of these ideas were kicking around anyway. BIT helps give it a bit of extra focus and profile.”
In his paper Policy Entrepreneurship in UK Central Government, John argues that BIT displays some features of a ‘skunkworks unit’ - a small team within a larger organisation that is given a brief to innovate and more freedom to operate. John argues that factors like a lack of hierarchy, freedom from short-term management objectives, and low staff turnover have enabled BIT to be a “catalyst for innovation, without having to do all the innovation itself”.
What is a skunkworks unit?
The name Skunk Works has its origins in Al Capp’s popular US comic Li’l Abner, where the mysterious ‘Skonk Works’ emitted foul fumes when brewing dead skunks and shoes into ‘skonk oil’. The term was used in a business context at Lockheed Aircraft Corporation in Burbank, California during World War Two as a nickname for a small, secretive project that designed the US Air Force’s first jet fighter (the P-80 Shooting Star). The team, based in a tent next to a stinking plastics factory, was given a large amount of autonomy. The idea of a physically separate innovation unit, free from bureaucratic impediments, has since been adopted elsewhere, and the term ‘Skunkworks Unit’ is widely used in discussions of management theory.
BIT head David Halpern has dubbed the unit a “guerrilla operation” for the way it snatched early opportunities to shine. But as behavioural insight’s potential for cost-effective impact becomes increasingly accepted, some departments, such as the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department of Health (DoH), are setting up their own internal teams of behavioural insight researchers. New public bodies, such as the financial regulator the FCA and the executive agency Public Health England (PHE), are also committed to behavioural insight ideas.
“There’s a lot of momentum behind these kinds of initiatives,” says Tim Chadborn, lead researcher on PHE’s Behavioural Insight Team. Chadborn says his group will be working to set up collaborative research projects with local partners, and then co-ordinating the replication of successful interventions elsewhere. They have put out a call both to PHE’s central teams and to local centres for suggestions, saying that the team plans to provide the skills and expertise to enable the robust evaluation of these initiatives.
“We are trying to develop and stimulate innovation at the local level,” says Chadborn.
Public private partnership
BIT was created with a two-year ‘sunset clause’, but a 2011-12 update demonstrated that it had met the criteria that would enable its life to be prolonged. The document boasted that BIT had helped make savings of 22 times its cost, and predicted further savings of at least £300m over the next five years. BIT’s influence is now extending beyond government. The unit recently announced that it would be part-privatised, carrying out work for external organisations as well as governments.
But as interventions are scaled up, departments will inevitably encounter hurdles. Chris Branson of Ipsos MORI’s Behavioural Insight Group believes that additional research may be needed to assist departments with the finer details of implementing and evaluating behaviour change initiatives. Ipsos MORI has developed research methods based on a behavioural model developed by academics including Susan Michie of UCL, which synthesises insights from 19 earlier academic behavioural frameworks.
“Analysing the causes of a particular behaviour can directly suggest the type of intervention that is likely to be important in that situation,” says Branson. “Does it need to motivate people? Does it need to allay certain fears, or make sure people are looking at something that they weren’t previously looking at?”
Branson believes that agencies may be able to help government departments gain a more detailed understanding of specific contexts, as well as to evaluate impact over the longer term - or in more depth - than would otherwise happen (such as sub-group analysis within a randomised control trial).
But while the details may as yet be unclear, behavioural insight’s influence on policy looks set to continue. “It’s a bit like Pandora’s Box,” says Branson. “The design of people’s environment has an impact on how they behave. As soon as government is aware of that, then it can’t fail to care about that design.”
This article was first published in Impact, the new quarterly magazine from the Market Research Society. Follow the link to read the digital version of Impact.
- A special report on customer experience
- Profiles of the Tate, SABMiller and Auto Trader, showing how they use data and insight to shape strategy and decision-making
- How hackathons can help data and analytics companies innovate