The Next Generation of Nudge: Lessons from Behavioural Exchange 2018

Haris Khan, Advisor, Behavioural Insights

With the ten-year anniversary of the best-selling ‘Nudge’ by Cass Sunstein and newly minted Nobel laureate Richard Thaler and the proliferation of Behavioural Insights (BI) units across the world, these certainly are exciting times for the application of behavioural science to public policy. Last month, I had the privilege of attending the 2018 Behavioural Exchange conference in Sydney, Australia. Titled “New Frontiers in Behavioural Insights,” the BX 2018 Conference was hosted, with great success, by the Behavioural Economics Team Australia who work to apply behavioural economics in the Australian Government.

The event left me with the distinct impression that the field of BI is evolving rapidly. No longer simply yearning for a chance to show that it can work, the practice of BI in government is looking to tackle bigger problems than ever before, and to do so more efficiently. 

Jackson Harbour in Sydney

Two major areas of advancement in the field were discussed at BX 2018 that I believe are particularly exciting for public servants, BI practitioners, and citizens alike. The first is the rising use of BI to inform policy and program design, which expands the field and carries the promise of greatly increasing positive impact of government action. The second is the tailoring of BI interventions to address the specific behavioural barriers of particular populations, which could make traditional BI interventions more effective and cost efficient.

#1: BI in Policy and Program Design

While BI has proven its effectiveness in making service delivery and program design improvements working within an existing policy framework, making policy behaviourally-informed from its conception is a new frontier for the field. Across the globe, BI units are applying their knowledge of human behaviour earlier in the policy process and impacting policy while it is still in the early stages of its development. 

Elizabeth Hardy presenting at BX 2018

My colleague Elizabeth Hardy, Senior Lead for BI at the Impact and Innovation Unit, had the audience taking notes at BX 2018. 

This evolution could enable BI to have an impact far greater than what is possible by making tweaks to correspondence, as was often done in the first generation of trials.

For example, the “darling” of BI is the finding that people are much more likely to make a particular decision if the option to do so is presented as the default. In the UK, automatically enrolling employees in workplace pension programs (with the option to opt-out, of course) has been a massive success, resulting in millions more people saving for their retirements. Automatic pension enrollment is a behaviourally-informed policy decision that provides a model for the use of BI in “big P” policy making. When combined with rigorous evaluation, the use of BI in policy making carries the promise of resulting in levels of impact that would be difficult to achieve through service delivery improvements alone.

#2: “Boutique” BI

The first generation of BI interventions were usually designed to work on average across large populations. Increasingly, that approach is being complemented with a more targeted strategy designed to address the specific behavioural barriers that hinder behaviours among certain populations.

In a soon-to-be-released case study on a trial run by the IIU to encourage Canadians to receive the Canada Learning Bond, we found that different interventions worked better for particular sub-populations in our sample. Tailoring future communications based on characteristics that we know are predictive of their behaviour is another evolution in the field that is likely to increase impact.

A key tool in this tailoring could be the use of machine learning to allow governments to identify risk factors with a level of precision and predictive power that was previously impossible.  Behavioural insights could then be applied to those groups in a precise way to address the specific behavioural risk factors present in a particular population. Tailoring interventions to specific populations, while respecting the history and circumstance of these individuals, has the potential to make BI interventions more cost effective and efficient at tackling some of our toughest public policy challenges.

Cass R. Sunstein presenting at BX 2018

World-renowned scholar Cass R. Sunstein was one of the exceptional BX 2018 presenters.

Among other exciting developments in the field of BI presented at BX 2018, the use of BI in policy making and the rise of “boutique” BI interventions stood out due to their possibility of driving impact and efficiency. It is important for the field to continue to grow and evolve as it enters the mainstream of public policy discussions around the world, and these two areas represent great potential for that purpose. If you’d like to check out videos of the excellent presentations given at BX, you can do so by visiting the BX2018 homepage

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