Posted by Shabnam Gill on Wednesday December 2nd, 2015

Last week I attended the HC Coombs Policy Forum in Canberra. The Forum included a star-studded line up of international speakers, including Professor Cass Sunstein (co-author of Nudge and former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs). The HC Coombs Policy Forum is a collaboration between the Australian Government and Australian National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy.

In a broad-ranging keynote address, Professor Sunstein outlined his experience in applying behavioural insights to public policy, including some of the exciting results from interventions being tested by the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. The use of behavioural insights is gaining even more momentum in the United States. In September 2015, President Obama signed an Executive Order directing US Federal agencies to use behavioural science insights to improve programs and services and rigorously test and evaluate the impacts.

Some of my highlights from Professor’s Sunstein’s talk were:

“Plate not Pyramid” - One of Professor Sunstein’s guiding principles for policy makers is to think about reducing complexity wherever possible. One of the most salient examples of this is the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) switch from a cluttered and confusing “food pyramid” to a clearer illustration of the major food groups and their relative portion sizes to make it easier for busy people to make better food choices. In this case, Sunstein advised the USDA that the pyramid contained too much information that could be making it difficult for people to understand what they should be eating. You can read more about Professor Sunstein’s “plate not pyramid” mantra is his 2014 book Simpler.

Active choosing or default rules? – Professor Sunstein explored a challenge facing policymakers: deciding whether to use defaults, or to provide people a choice when trying to encourage behaviour change. In some cases, providing a default option can have a dramatic effect. For example, because people can over-value immediate rewards at the expense of long-term intentions (the “present bias”) they put off thinking about and taking action to set aside money for their retirement. The introduction of automatic enrolment into savings plans has seen a significant increase in participation rates in savings schemes in countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. In other cases, providing people with a choice can be more effective. For example, Professor Sunstein found that households are more likely to use environmentally friendly energy (“green energy”) if they are forced to make an active choice to do so – rather than being automatically enrolled in a green energy scheme. This is consistent with Professor Shlomo Benartzi’s work looking at how defaults can be less effective in online environments, because people are more suspicious of the online default option and more likely to opt-out.

Associate Professor Nava Ashraf from Harvard University talked about applying behavioural insights to global development issues. Professor Ashraf provided examples of her work with governments of developing countries to improve community health outcomes through field experiments. In one example, a team of researchers partnered with the Zambian Government to address a shortage of community health workers. The study found that using messages focused on the career incentives (such as career progression and promotion) to attract community health workers were more effective than messages about the social benefits of the job.  Applicants targeted using career incentive messaging were better qualified and performed better on the job than those who responded to the social benefits messaging. These kinds of findings may challenge traditional notions of who and how to recruit to fields such as social and disability support work.  

Professor Ashraf also spoke about the importance of public policy makers working with academics to co-generate knowledge about what works. This is certainly something we are thinking about more and more as we begin working in a new range of policy areas. 

Assistant Professor Ben Castleman from the University of Virginia spoke about his work testing the use of text messages to dramatically improve educational outcomes from preschool to college by providing timely prompts at critical junctures in a student’s life. Learn more Professor Castleman’s work in this space here.

Here in the Behavioural Insights Unit we are testing the use of technology such as SMS. We will be releasing some results in the coming days about how we have used timely text messages to increase hospital efficiency by reducing missed outpatient appointments.

The conference also provided an opportunity for Senator Scott Ryan to announce the establishment of BETA, the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australia Government. We are really pleased that the Commonwealth agencies will be joining us in applying BI to improve outcomes. We look forward to learning from each other and identifying opportunities to collaborate on future projects. 

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