Inside the Behavioural Insights Unit: What we do, what you might not know we do and how to join us!
Behavioural insights teams continue to spring up all around the world. Recent additions include the United Nations Development Program’s Behavioural Initiative and the Behavioural Insights Unit in Qatar. In Australia, the NSW, Commonwealth and Victorian governments have central teams as well as teams in some of their agencies.
As the profile of behavioural insights rises across the world, so has the number of people asking “but what do you really do?” and when we enthusiastically talk about all the great things we do, the next question is invariably, “so how do I get a job with you?”
To kick off our blog series in 2017, we thought we would take you inside our unit. If you’re considering a career in behavioural insights, hopefully this will give you a look into what we getup to and what we think makes a great behavioural insights specialist.
I’ve asked four team members to answer of a series of our most frequently asked questions. Before I get down to down to the questions, here’s a bit of an introduction to the team members:
Dr Alex King, Director of the Unit, a recovering rocket scientist (seriously, his PhD was in astrophysics and he worked at NASA), has worked in a variety of government roles in NSW and the UK, including in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit, planning and performance, environmental strategy, justice, horizon scanning, freedom of information and renewable energy policy. He somehow manages to keep on top of the latest research and create fun activities to test the team’s knowledge of psychological effects/biases/phenomena each week.
Clare Power, one of the newest additions to the Behavioural Insight Unit (BIU), joined the Department of Premier and Cabinet as a graduate with a background in international development. Her second rotation was through the BIU, and she liked it so much she decided to stay! When she is not leading the team to victory in Fit Feb, she works in the Justice portfolio and is the co-chair of the DPC Young Professional’s Network.
Edwina James, a Senior Policy Officer, joined us in 2015. She has a Master’s degree in Anthropology and has worked for several years for private market research organisations. She is one of the Unit’s experts in qualitative research, design and user-experience. She is known for her dark humour and fierce competitiveness.
Dr Hui Chai, one of our two data analysts, is a registered psychologist. She earned her PhD in Applied Psychology and a Master’s degree in Organisational Psychology from the University of New South Wales. When her computer screen doesn’t look like the inside of the Matrix, she is making the rest of the team envious with her delicious lunches.
Over to the questions.
Describe the BIU in three words:
Hui: Talented, innovative, positive.
Edwina: Passionate, intelligent, geeky… I mean, I’m not geeky but the rest of the team are.
Alex: Sure you aren’t!
Clare: Fun, instantaneous, smart.
Alex: I have to give my usual three: innovative, collaborative and evidence-based.
What is a typical BIU day?
Alex: I’m not sure there really is a ‘typical’ day; every day can look really different.
Edwina: Lots of phone calls, lots of emails, meetings…
Clare: …Yeah, constant engagement with other agencies.
Alex: Quite a lot of the team are out and about. It’s rare to have the whole team in the office, usually someone is out doing fieldwork or meeting with our partner agencies – though for me I’m mostly in meetings.
Clare: What really characterises our day is that you have to go from the most nitty-gritty details of a project, like writing up the minutes of a meeting, but then you also have to step back and look at the whole project and how its tracking.
Alex: Yes, although the conceptual ‘ideas part’ is important, and probably the most interesting part of our work, that day-to-day project management is crucial.
Hui: In terms of my role, yeah a lot of programming, but also solving problems.
Edwina: Yes, problem-solving is a huge part of what we do.
What makes the work that the BIU does different to other roles you have done in the past?
Hui: It is very research-focused. We focus on evaluating and constantly improving.
Alex: Yes, there is a lot more focus on evidence than anywhere else in government that I’ve worked.
Clare: You spend a lot time working on a project, trying to understand it and improve it. You work on something for months, even years.
Edwina: Everyone in the team is essentially working on the same kind of thing, but in really different areas of government. You have a clear program of work.
Clare: And the learning, there is a really strong learning culture in the team.
Alex: Yes, in some jobs you can be up and running with most of what you need to know in a few weeks. There’s so much to know in this job that it can take many months or sometimes years to get fully up to speed. And no one person will ever be able to do everything that is involved in one of our projects, so we need a multidisciplinary team of specialists and generalists.
What are the misconceptions about your job?
Alex: One of things that I come across is that people think we are mostly a policy team or think tank, coming up with new policy ideas based on behavioural science. There is a bit of that, but actually most of our work is operational. We develop and run real-world trials, so that can be a bit disappointing for people who want to just work with ideas and not get into implementing them. Actually most of our job is implementation.
Clare: I think a lot people think we can just go out and work on whatever topic we want without having to partner with other agencies.
Edwina: I think a lot people think that our work is more ‘intellectually sexy’ than it is, that we spend our days thinking about cognitive biases and abstract ideas, but that is such a small part of my day. It is about speaking with people and trying to communicate different ideas.
Alex: People sometimes think we can sprinkle a bit of ‘BI pixie dust’ on a problem and come up with a solution really quickly. But what we know from the behavioural sciences is that how people behave is context specific. So to come up with a good solution, we need to spend time really understanding the problem and why people are doing what they are doing. That takes time. Our projects ideally start with a good few months of trying to understand what’s going on.
Hui: In terms of people in the research world, the research we do is not tightly-controlled, it’s actually applied…
Alex: …yes, messy real-world research… Some people coming straight out of academia sometimes underestimate how tough it can be to do applied research. Dealing with messy data for example, like what Hui does every day.
What skills do you need to be successful in your role?
Clare: Really strong relationship-building skills.
Edwina: Yeah, if you’re working as a project lead you need to be able to get on with such a range of people from your end-users to senior executives to CEOs and be able to walk into a meeting or have a chat equally well with all of them. We just can’t get our projects done without other people and the help of others.
Hui: For me, its research and analytical skills, being OK with constantly learning new ways to do things and a statistics background.
Alex: I’d say the ability to manage stakeholders and project management – it’s not like we’re managing huge infrastructure projects, but definitely need some project management skills. Research and analytical skills, though again you don’t need to be a specialist in every aspect but having some familiarity with qualitative or quantitative research, statistics, trial design and analysis – it’s hard not to have at least some of those skills.
Clare: The ability to be flexible: at least some of the parameters of your project will change.
Alex: There’s a skill, I guess, a drive, to make things happen. Being proactive, not just waiting for someone else to set the agenda. It’s that ‘making things happen in government’. It’s a sort of a complex composite skill, but it’s critical.
Edwina: You need to anticipate problems and work out the solution ahead of time so if something happens you have the solution in your back pocket.
Hui: Organising, planning and prioritising.
Alex: And the ability to handle ideas: there’s a lot of knowledge, research that you need to be able to grapple with, and apply it to totally new problems. Generating ideas in a creative way. Thinking about completely new ways of doing things – though I’m not sure if that is a mindset or a skill?
Hui: Its sort of abstract reasoning.
Edwina: Yes, it’s about taking those academic ideas, getting your head around the government system, or the way the system is currently functioning, and then applying those ideas to the system in a way that’s actually going to work in the real-world.
Alex: Yes that translation skill, from the concept to reality. I guess one thing we haven’t talked about so far is the sales skills: we have to sell what we do, that what we’re suggesting is a good idea, selling your ideas.
If you could build the perfect team member, what five skills would they have?
Edwina: Fast learner.
Alex: Excellent with people, highly organised.
Edwina: I think they need to be fun!
Clare: Yeah a passion for the job and they enjoy it.
Edwina: You have to be a hard worker; if you’re not a hard worker, you’re not going to be cut out for this.
Alex: I guess all the skillsets we were talking about previously. The ability to go out and speak to people, to work with numbers and data, the ability to take people along with you, co-design, run workshops, all those skill sets… that’s more than five!
Clare: A love of learning too.
Alex: A good team player, but can balance that with working pretty autonomously.
What skill do you wish you had before starting with BIU?
Hui: Programming skills – we’ve recently moved from SPSS to using the R language – modelling techniques and knowledge of econometrics…
Alex: … so not the hard stuff then!
Clare: Well for me, definitely more skills in statistical analyses and research design.
Alex: Yeah the research design – I’d done physical sciences research, but social science research design I had to learn.
Clare: But you’re never going to know everything about the context. That’s why you have to have good relationship skills because we rely on our partners to have that knowledge.
Alex: I spent a lot of time reading about what is being done across the world, what works, the research base. I always would like to be able to know more about the research base than I currently do! It’s not critical, you can learn it here, but the more you know coming in the less you need to learn on the job.
Down to the nitty-gritty, Alex, how do you actually get a job in the BIU?
Alex: Well first of all there has to be a vacancy. It’s great that people are enthusiastic and reach out to us, but in reality other than thanking them for their interest there’s not a lot more that we can do until we have a vacancy in the unit. And we have to advertise the vacant roles. So if you reach out to us that’s great, but apologies in advance if we just tell you to sign up to the mailing list and encourage you to apply when a vacancy is advertised (vacancies will be posted on our website and the IworkforNSW website).
In terms of what we’re looking for, well we have talked about the skill sets, but of course almost no one will have all the things we have mentioned. If we ever saw someone with all the skills we would nab them immediately! So you might be a great qualitative researcher and know how to manage a project, but not in a government context or you have been working in policy and like numbers but don’t know much about psychology.
To some extent we also look for complementary skills so that the Unit is balanced across all the different skills sets. So if we need some more quantitative people in the team, we might specify that skill in the job description.
Final question, would you recommend working in the BIU to a friend?
Edwina: Depends on the friend!
Alex: Yes, only if the friend had all those things we just listed! No, seriously, it is great place to work, the best team I’ve ever worked with.