How - and why - Behavioural Insights can help governments

by Jaidan Rumboll

“There is a movement afoot to weave psychological science into the fabric of government. And by using the words ‘weave’ and ‘fabric’, I mean to signal something unique: an attempt, now emerging from within government itself, to integrate the insights and experimental methods from the psychological sciences directly into day-to-day governance.” David Yokum: Director of The Lab @ DC, Washington DC, USA.

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Understanding the ‘why’ behind people’s actions - the reasons they behave the way they do and, just as interestingly, don’t behave the way they should - is the primary fascination behind Behavioural Insights (BI). As a result, BI is seeing exponential growth in its capacity as an innovative approach to policy-making. Because it is grounded in research from multiple fields such as cognitive science, social science and psychology, BI provides a deeper understanding of how humans make choices, in a way that supports human-centric policy.

The end result? Policy-making that accurately reflects and represents human interests.

Understanding BI’s role

BI is one part of a triangle: consisting of BI, BS and BE. Or, in other words, “one discipline in a family of three, the others being behavioural sciences and behavioural economics” (Lunn, 2014; OECD, 2016). In order to understand BI, it’s helpful to unpack the related disciplines that inform it:

  • Behavioural Sciences (BS) encompass the study of human behaviour through a scientific lens, and often intersect with the broader social sciences, such as anthropology, psychology and sociology.

  • Behavioural Economics (BE) examines economic decision-making from a behavioural standpoint, emphasising the psychological, cultural and social factors which influence these decisions, rather than viewing economics from a purely theoretical perspective.

The inclusion of BI into the processes of policy-making allows for governmental policy that not only accurately represents human interests, but has practical, well-researched examples and case studies. What does that mean? Everything is verified. These examples and case studies illustrate proven, real-world outcomes. BI’s focus is on creating and substantiating policies that prioritise human needs - and behaviours. Policy-making in government and public institutions has a greater chance of consistent and successful projections if it includes BI.

Guiding principles for BI in government

Since 2013, the OECD have been a significant supporter of public institutions using behavioural insights in public policy. They understand that for BI to become an invaluable policy-making tool, we need, “guiding principles and standards… to guide future applications and maintain the trust of public bodies and citizens” (OECD, 2017). Although BI has generally been used in the late design phases of policy, the potential for integration is much larger. “So far, BI has been mostly applied while implementing policies - often fixing policies that hadn’t fully reflected how individuals actually behave and make decisions,” explains Filippo Cavassini, Economic Adviser in the Regulatory Policy Division of the Public Governance Directorate at the OECD. “But thinking early about actual behaviours can make a difference in improving the effectiveness of public policies. This includes health services, how teachers and students learn, how to keep neighbourhoods safe and how to use natural resources sustainably.”

Making life better, using BI

BI has been used to improve consumer experience in multiple instances. In 2015, for instance, the OECD worked with the Columbia Communications Regulator (CCR) to address user complaints regarding expensive, unsatisfactory products and communication services. Their team did research into the issue, and experimented with ways to improve and redesign the regulatory regime to protect consumers. The results were assessed with quantitative and qualitative methods, and the proposed policy change was opened for public consultation. The result? A new, successful, behaviourally-informed consumer protection regime, which monitored user response to determine satisfaction.

Implementing BI into the policy-making of government and other public institutions allows for policy that truly reflects, represents and supports human interest in a holistic way. Using BI in this way acknowledges the validity of theoretical strategies, without diminishing the value of empirical scientific methods.

We all agree - on some level - that our governments are there to guide and help citizens to live better lives. How much more effective would these governments be if, instead of making decisions behind closed doors, they welcome the behavioural insights of the people they are trying to serve? BI in government is not new - the OECD reports that over 200 institutions within and outside government are applying behavioural insights to design and implement public policies.

The question is: why isn’t it every department in every government?


If you’re looking for even more info on what BI can do for policy-making, head over to the BI4Gov website and register for South Africa’s first Behavioural Insights conference.

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