OPINION15 October 2012

Nudged down under


Crawford Hollingworth heads to Australia, where the New South Wales government is intent on learning some lessons from its UK counterpart.

As we at The Behavioural Architects (TBA) open a Sydney office we’re excited to see that the UK government’s Behavioural Insight Team (BIT) has agreed to work in partnership with the government of New South Wales (NSW) to embed different behavioural insights in state policies on debt recovery, fraud prevention and preventable health issues such as smoking and obesity.

The NSW government will benefit from the experience and ideas of Rory Gallagher, one of the UK team’s senior members, on a year’s secondment beginning in November. ”We’re intending to use his expertise to kick-start our thinking and the application of that thinking to particular areas in the state,” said Chris Eccles, the director-general of the Department of Premier and Cabinet.

BIT’s inspired use of BE both to understand and change behaviour saw it pass its two-year probation with flying colours this summer and it is not surprising that many governments around the world have already been inspired by its various programs and interventions. When it first started its remit was considered ambitious and sceptics predicted it would not last long, laughing at the idea that the populist book ‘Nudge’ should be required summer reading for David Cameron’s entourage.

At the outset BIT’s objectives were threefold:

  • To transform two major areas of policy
  • To increase knowledge and understanding of behavioural sciences across the government in every department
  • To earn its bread and butter by making returns of ten times its running cost.

The unit recruited a talented team, headed by Dr David Halpern, an expert on behavioural sciences who had worked in government before as well as holding an academic position in Social Sciences at Cambridge University. Halpern brought with him the behavioural sciences guru Richard Thaler (co-author of ‘Nudge’) to advise.

Over two years the team has chalked up some notable successes; including working with the UK Courts Service to raise the number of payments of fines using personalised text message reminders. This intervention reduced the number of bailiff visits by 150,000 and saved the government £30m in one year. Another success (which also saved £30m) involved the application of a simple social norms message to prompt people to pay their taxes on time.

BIT’s achievements to date are savings of over 20 times its cost and policymaking interventions that will save at least £300m over the next five years. Little surprise, then, that it is expanding rapidly, taking on new staff and that it has managed to sell its wares overseas too.

Crawford Hollingworth is a co-founder of The Behavioural Architects