Behavioural insights ‘have taken root’ in governments: OECD report

By on 12/04/2017 | Updated on 24/09/2020
Behavioural insights may be the way forward for decision-making in government. (Image courtesy OECD/GlebStock/Macrovector)

The use of ‘behavioural insight’ techniques in public policy is entering the mainstream, a new report from the OECD argues, and the next step is to use them to influence organisational behaviour inside public institutions.

Governments are increasingly using behavioural insights – a practice combining psychology and economics – to design policies and regulations around a realistic understanding of human behaviour traits, rather than assuming that people will behave ‘rationally’ in ways that maximise their income or wellbeing.

So far, the report says, the application of behavioural insights has mostly focused on end users and consumers – ‘nudging’ them into making better financial decisions, for example, or healthier food choices.

But the OECD argues that these techniques could also be applied to regulated firms or governments themselves, nudging civil servants into working together on cross-cutting agendas such as diversity, open government or good regulatory practice.

“Behavioural insights can no longer be seen as a fashionable short-term foray by public bodies. They have taken root in many ways across many countries around the world and across a wide range of sectors and policy areas,” explains the OECD report, which includes more than 110 case studies from all over the world.

It draws on responses to a survey conducted among 60 public bodies in 23 OECD and partner countries and two international organisations.

The report argues that policymakers should now be thinking about a different set of questions when it comes to the application of behavioural insights, such as how to embed the practice into decision-making in government, or whether to use it earlier in the policy design process. It also recommends training public officials to be able to understand and apply behavioural insights.

The New York-based non-profit organisation ideas42, a behavioural design lab formed in 2008, collaborated with the OECD and the London School of Economics (LSE) on the survey. Piyush Tantia, co-executive director at ideas42, told Global Government Forum: “We agree with the notion that the next step for applying behavioural science to government is to reinvent programmes and policies with behavioural insights baked in from the beginning, rather than simply optimizing those that already exist.

“However, any reinvention will require deeper analysis and diagnosis than government nudge units have been able to do so far. Also, one of the hallmarks of successful innovation is leaving room for failure along the way, which will be a challenge for governments.”

The first government unit created to support the implementation of behavioural insights in policymaking was the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), run by David Halpern and nicknamed the “nudge unit” after a book by economist Richard Thaler. Similar teams have been introduced by governments in the US and Australia.

Martin Lodge, a professor of political science and public policy who helped compile the report, pointed out that there are ethical considerations to take into account.

“The survey revealed a dominance of transactional interventions relating to consumption patterns, customer choices or administrative interactions,” he told Global Government Forum.

“It is an open question whether behavioural insights can be moved beyond the ‘well-intentioned, poorly resourced’ individual towards other sets of actors that may be more ill-intentioned and well-resourced. This also means that thinking about the organisational behaviour of public and private organisations should receive more attention.”

The report includes six principles for the use of behavioural insights in public policy, advising civil servants to: be strategic and systematic; use reliable data; validate results through replication; consider that some interventions may only work for a segment of society; evaluate; and publish results, good or bad.

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See also:

IMF warns of threat to global stability from productivity slowdown

The innovation coming out of Africa

UK cross-government leadership group highlights departmental ‘good practice’ initatives

About Tamsin Rutter

Tamsin Rutter is a journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She writes on a variety of topics, including public services, cities, local and central government and education. She was formerly the deputy editor of the Guardian's Public Leaders Network and Housing Network.

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