Moving beyond nudges — What’s next for behavioural insights?

Opinion: We’ve taken the baby steps — now comes the long haul

This article was written by Elizabeth Hardy, Senior Lead and Rodney Ghali, Assistant Secretary at the Impact and Innovation Unit in Canada. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.


There are numerous factors that influence the decisions people make.

Through a combination of psychology, neuroscience, and other social science approaches, behavioural insights examines how people behave and make decisions in the real world.  It is true that most of us have good intentions – we want to eat better, save more, exercise more. But since we are human, other factors often interfere with those good intentions.

By accounting for the way in which people make decisions and behave in the real world, we can better design programs, policies, and services. We can use this knowledge to design and test improved approaches or new interventions that will encourage positive changes in behaviour.

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Thaler and Sunstein’s 2014 book Nudge, shed much needed light on effective policy development and design. Since its release, there has been a growing body of literature that examines how to effectively bring about behaviour change.

Governments around the world have started to see the potential in designing policies, programs, and services for how people actually behave. Integrating BI into policy development introduces an alternative to complex legislation and costly marketing and quite often costs very little to test and implement.

Behavioural Insights in Canada

For this reason, governments and organisations around the world are building BI capacity into their operations to address a host of issues — and Canada is no exception. In 2013, the Government of Ontario was the first to begin to test the principles of behavioural insights, which led to the official announcement of the creation of the Behavioural Insights Unit in early 2015.

Since then, all three levels of government across Canada have started to follow suit, with the Government of British Columbia launching the Behavioural Insights Group (BIG) in 2016, and cities like Toronto and Vancouver launching BI experiments in the past year.

At the federal level, several departments have established BI expertise within their organisations, including Employment and Social Development Canada, the Canada Revenue Agency, and the Department of National Defence.

In early 2015, the Government of Canada launched what is now known as the Impact and Innovation Unit (IIU). The mandate of the IIU is to support departments in building results-driven approaches that work for Canadians through the application of innovative financing approaches, new partnership models, impact measurement methodologies, and behavioural insights.

Raising awareness

Since its inception, the team has grown and evolved, and has recently launched its signature initiative — Impact Canada, a platform that accelerates the adoption of outcomes-based approaches by reaching a diverse group of problem solvers and innovators.

Since its launch, the IIU has run a series of experiments testing the principles of BI to improve outcomes. A compelling example of this is the IIU’s work to assist low-income families in saving for post-secondary education. The Canada Learning Bond (CLB) is an educational savings incentive that only one in three eligible Canadian children are receiving.

More and more teams are applying a behavioural lens as new initiatives are being created — generating new touchpoints or embedding  solutions during the design phase of the initiative

This means that approximately 1.81 million eligible children in Canada are not receiving these much needed funds. In collaboration with Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the IIU conducted a randomised controlled trial to test changes to the correspondence sent to families of eligible children. On average, sending a letter informed by BI increased CLB take-up rates to between 8-9% with the best performing letters resulting in take up rates above 14%.

Beyond nudging

Nudging — making small, low-cost changes to routine processes — is one aspect of behavioural insights.

It’s an approach that has proven to be effective in addressing existing programs, policies, and processes that aren’t performing where they should be. Over the past few years, however, the thinking around human decision-making and behavioural insights has expanded to look at new programs and policies at the outset – as they are being created.

Gaining considerable traction is the idea of moving beyond nudging to instead realising the potential of behaviourally informed policy development. More and more teams are applying a behavioural lens as new initiatives are being created — generating new touchpoints or embedding  solutions during the design phase of the initiative.

In addition, as work in the field expands, the IIU is further exploring the connection between other innovative approaches, like design thinking and its relationship to behavioural insights. A recently published article in Stanford Social Innovation Review entitled The New Science of Designing for Humans, talks about the opportunity and benefit of incorporating key elements of Human-centred design (HCD) into a rigorous behavioural approach: The behavioural design methodology incorporates HCD’s fundamental approach of being human-centred and thoughtful, but adds scientific insights and iterative testing to advance HCD in … significant ways.”

In response, the IIU team is testing this integrated approach in a number of key public policy areas.

Scaling charity

Finally, there is a tremendous opportunity for greater impact when we create innovative partnerships. Over the past several years, it has become increasingly clear that challenging problems requires innovative, forward-thinking organisations to collaborate.

Whether that is other levels of government or outside organisations, greater gains can be achieved if we work together to tackle pressing societal issues. A good example of this is the IIU’s recent work on charitable giving in Canada. As part of the Giving Behaviours Project led by the Rideau Hall Foundation, the IIU partnered with Heart & Stroke to run a randomised controlled trial to encourage charitable behaviour.

As part of the trial, Heart & Stroke sent out close to a quarter million e-mails to Canadians that had never before donated to the charity, testing the efficacy of three different BI principles. The trial found that the offer to match donated funds resulted in 3.5 times the number of donations, when compared to a control group. The full results of the trial can be found here.

What’s next?

There is no question that it is an exciting time to work in the field of behavioural insights and public policy. In just a few short years, there has been tremendous growth in the number of organisations adopting this approach to help improve programs, policies and services for Canadians.

With further research and collaboration, the sophistication of how the approach is applied within governments across the country will continue to evolve. — Elizabeth Hardy and Rodney Ghali

(photo credit: Death to the stock photo/MACKENZIE FREEMIRE)

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