Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team sets out its work

Yesterday the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team published the first full report of its work since it was set up in July 2010.

It usefully sets out examples of how behavioural insights have been applied within government and public policy over the past year:

  • Organ donation – introducing a ‘required choice’ for vehicle licence applicants from 31 July. It is estimated that this will more than double the percentage of people joining the organ donation register and bring an extra 1 million donors over the course of the Parliament.
  • Healthier food – salt in pre-prepared food is to be reduced by 15% on 2010 targets (or 1g per person a day compared with 2007 levels) as part of a voluntary agreement with industry. It is estimated that this will save around 4,500 lives a year.
  • Consumer empowerment – giving consumers access to data held about them in electronic format by firms. This programme, known as ‘mydata’, is likely to revolutionise the relationship between consumers and firms, overcoming a host of behavioural biases.
  • Tax – changing letters to explain that most people in their local area had already paid their taxes boosted repayment rates by around 15 percentage points. If rolled out nationally, this would free up collector resource capable of generating £30 million of extra revenue annually and would advance over £160 million of cash flow by around six weeks each year.
  • Environment – we have redesigned Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). From 2012, the EPCs will tell people how costly it will be to heat a home they are buying, and will help 1.4 million households to make their homes more energy efficient, saving them money in the process.

Much of this is set out in more detail in a number of significant reports for Government Departments covering Health, Energy Use and Consumer Power.

In addition, the Team also provided advice on a range of other policy areas, including:

In terms of future work the report says:

Priorities for the coming year are likely to include developing innovative alternative solutions as part of the Red Tape Challenge; implementing trials to reduce public sector fraud, debt and error; and pushing forward work to reduce common crimes such as mobile phone theft. We will also continue to examine aspects of health, including how to radically reduce harms from smoking, and will commence work on higher education.

The report is an excellent checklist of key issues around pro-social behaviour change in public policy and thus well worth reading. Let me give two examples that intrigued me:

  • Page 17 – Research in the US has found that signatures and declarations of honesty are significantly more effective if placed at the beginning of a form than at the end
  • Page 19 – Experiments have been conducted to show how specific configurations of contextual cues can give rise to different levels of disclosure in online situations. For example, some findings have counterintuitively shown that people are more likely to disclose sensitive information to websites perceived to be less secure – more secure websites were more likely to trigger privacy concerns. These findings go against previous privacy research based on the assumption of rational choice.

It also sets out the argument for new ways of working which we at TCC have been arguing for over a number of years:

  • A new set of policy tools. As we have seen, behavioural insights bring in their wake a new set of policy tools. 
  • A new approach to partnerships with business and public service professionals. We have found that the use of behavioural insights has often brought with it the necessity to work closely with business – and public service professionals – who are often much better placed to affect behaviour than civil servants working in Whitehall. This has led to the ‘spin-out’ of the new Partnerships Team in the Cabinet Office, with whom we look forward to working closely in the coming year. 
  • Reforming government communications. Behavioural approaches rest heavily on public ownership and acceptability. This implies a far more dynamic form of communication between government and the public – a constant seeking of permission – and in particular a shift away from the traditional notion of ‘broadcast communication’ that has traditionally characterised government communications. Government also needs to be smarter in how it uses its digital and real estate, not least to harness what Tom Steinberg has called the ‘school gates’ phenomenon – the power of real and virtual spaces that bring citizens, and sometimes professionals, together.

We particularly agree with the final point that there has to be a far more dynamic form of communication and believe that this has to be drawn from greater research insight into communities including the varied values they hold, in order for communications to be effective.

The Government also issued its response to the House of Lords report on Behaviour Change which we have previously commented on. The media coverage focused on the concept of Nudging, which is a narrow approach if used on its own, when there are many other forms of intervention. However the Government response rightly accepted the points made by the House of Lords saying:

  • We agree with the Committee‘s central finding that nudges, used in isolation, are likely to be less effective than using a range of interventions. We believe, however, that it is useful and important to consider how to apply behavioural insights as one of several tools which Government has at its disposal.
  • We agree that it is of critical important to ensure that behavioural interventions are properly evaluated, and we are focusing increasingly on this area. The recently published Open Public Services White Paper envisages the establishment of accreditation bodies capable of playing this role, and the work of the Behavioural Insights Team increasingly focuses on the establishment of controlled trials to determine the effectiveness of interventions.

This blog, along with others, has often argued that Nudges have to be nested in a wider range of behavioural interventions which include a mix of both operational delivery and strategic policy change drawn from well-established social marketing approaches.

Perhaps the biggest problem at present is the narrow way the media perceives all of this? In the following year perhaps the Behavioural Insight Team should not just be embedding new approaches with senior civil servants, but also engaging much more with frontline staff delivering interventions as well as explaining the wide choice of approaches in more detail to journalists and others communicating on the subject within wider social media?

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for The Campaign Company. If you want to see what your own primary values set is, why not take the simple Values Questionnaire here.

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6 Responses to “Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team sets out its work”

  1. craig lefebvre Says:

    Thanks for putting this together for us Charlie. It’s an important unit and set of initiatives to stay abreast of for our work.

  2. Social Mobility and Child Poverty – addressing motivational needs and values too? « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] The Campaign Company’s Blog TCC believes that long term success for any organisation is founded on the mutual trust established with its stakeholders, its consumers and the wider community. We believe that this mutual trust can only be achieved if an organisation actively engages in authentic and continuous dialogue with those whose lives it touches. « Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team sets out its work […]

  3. Transport Behavioural Insight Toolkit published « The Campaign Company’s Blog Says:

    […] I have previously surveyed the work of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team – better known through the media description of it as the ‘Nudge’ Unit – in order to examine all the areas of public policy they contributing to. Details of that previous survey is set out here. […]

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