These 10 governments are leading the world in behavioural science

Countries have used behavioural science to influence citizens since the '60s

The use of “nudges” in policymaking has been a major trend since the UK launched the world’s first government-embedded behavioural insights unit in 2010.

But governments around the world, from Denmark to Singapore, have been using principles from behavioural science to influence citizens since at least the 1960s.

That’s according to a new World Bank report, Behavioural Science Around the World, which highlights 10 countries that are pioneering the use of behavioural insights: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Peru, Singapore, the UK and the US.

The World Bank report looks at how these teams are integrated into government, which projects they’re working on and how they are run — and, most importantly, which experiments have worked.

It predicts that in the future, behavioural insights units will benefit from artificial intelligence, machine learning and virtual reality the same way they’ve gained from advancements in open data and e-government.

Below, we’ve outlined what some of these 10 countries have achieved.

The UK

The BIT was established under the UK’s Cabinet Office in 2010 with a staff of eight people. It has since increased tax receipts by $70 million a month, convinced an additional 96,000 citizens a year to register as organ donors and improved racial diversity in the police force, all on a shoestring budget of less than £500,000 ($654,000).

At the end of the team’s second year in operation, it had saved government 22 times the cost of the team.

Its work on increasing the number of registered organ donors in the UK was one of the largest randomised controlled trials ever held in the country. Prior to the trial, research showed that nine in 10 residents supported organ donation, but only a third were registered as donors.

To close this gap, the BIT added different messaging to government’s highest-trafficked websites. After testing a variety, they found that the most popular one was: “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.” The change resulted in 96,000 extra people a year registering as donors.

Nudges like these have been copied in countries from Germany to Guatemala. Today, the BIT is a limited company owned by its employees, the UK government and innovation charity Nesta.

At least 24 government entities in the UK have their own behavioural science teams — from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is using behavioural insights to encourage sustainable fishing, to Public Health England, which has used it to double enrolment in children’s weight management services.

Singapore

Singapore has been using behavioural science to direct policy since the 1960s — in some controversial ways. The 1968 Keep Singapore Clean and 1972 Stop At Two family planning campaigns, for example, used publicity, social pressure and competition to keep the city-state spotless and discourage parents from having large families.

Today, it uses behavioural science in many different ways. These include:

  •   Making default organ donation Singapore’s national policy
  •   Using peer influence to encourage cleanliness and greater respect for schools’ cleaning staff among students
  •   Making Job Centres more easily navigable for stressed job-seekers, increasing the percentage who found employment through them from 32 to 49%.

Canada

 Canada has teams applying behavioural science at the federal, provincial and municipal levels of government. The first formal unit to launch was the Ontario Behavioural Insights Unit (OBIU), in 2013.

Some examples of its projects include:

  •   Increasing organ and tissue donor registrations by 143% by making registration simpler
  •   Providing employers with clearer instructions on how, where and when to file overdue takes to increase the number of tax returns filed within 10 days by 40%
  •   Improving citizens’ recycling behaviour by testing different types of bin labels. The highest performing label increased organics recycling by 82%

Denmark 

Many Danish government agencies use behavioural insights, but most work with support from companies and academia, like nudging consultancy iNudgeyou and the Danish Nudging Network, a thinktank.

The practice became widespread between 2013 and 2016, and now behavioural science tools are used at all levels of government.

The Danish Ministry of Taxation, for example, worked with iNudgeyou to increase tax receipts. An email reminder focused on loss aversion increased compliance by 10%, and a tax payment platform geared toward younger citizens increased adherence by 7%.

The Netherlands 

The Behavioural Insights Network Netherlands was started in 2014, but the Dutch have been integrating behavioural insights into policymaking since at least 2009 when a report titled The Human Decider, which introduced Dutch ministries to nudges, was released.

The government encourages public servants to apply behavioural science “in the entire policymaking process”. They are to ensure its use is based on robust policy evaluations and that they are transparent about using nudges on citizens.

The City of Amsterdam has been using behavioural science since 2014. City officials have insights to reduce litter in public spaces, manage crowds and address street harassment.

Peru

Peru’s Ministry of Education established MineduLab in 2014 to address the many challenges its education system was facing. It has:

  •   Reduced dropout rates and improved learning outcomes by showing students videos on the importance of education, what they get out of finishing high school and how they can get into higher education
  •   Held 90-minute sessions on “how to have a growth mindset” for students, which improved test scores by an average of 0.2 standard deviations for $.20 per child
  •   Improved teacher and principal attendance through emails that use behavioural science-informed messaging that leverages social norms. They increased principal attendance by 4%

Australia 

The central government has been using behavioural science in policymaking since at least 2007, and its Behavioural Economics Team was established in 2016. It has done 14 trials thus far, including de-identifying job applications to prevent unconscious bias and reducing credit card debt through reminder emails with motivational messages. It discloses trials ahead of time and makes findings public once each trial is complete.

The New South Wales Behavioural Insights Unit, established in 2012, is perhaps one of the most advanced in the world. Its experiments have improved accused domestic abusers’ court attendance with personalised reminders and helped get injured police officers back to work sooner using goal-oriented approaches. —Jennifer Guay

(Picture credit: Unsplash)

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