Posted by Behavioural Insights Unit on Wednesday January 8th, 2014

By Jennifer Gold.

Jennifer is the practice lead for government transformation at the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre. She is co-author of Public Service Transformed: Harnessing the Power of Behavioural Insights.

“We are already seeing some impressive results emerge from governments’ use of behavioural insights in public policy. In areas as diverse as organ donor registration and tax payments, simple changes in the way choices are presented to people have been shown to have a significant impact on the way they behave.

But why stop here?  Our recent report promotes the benefits of governments turning the behavioural insights lens inward—on themselves. Internally-oriented nudges, we argue, can help transform public service work cultures.

This recent Community of Practice post summarises the report, which is intended to help governments implement ambitious reform agendas.

We were prompted by the number of governments around the world developing blueprints to re-model their public services. The UK’s Civil Service Reform Plan and Canada’s Blueprint 2020 are recent examples. Each has remarkably similar goals. Governments want workforces that are more collaborative, transparent, innovative and results-driven to meet the growing demands being placed on them. But it remains unclear how lasting reforms to internal work cultures will be achieved.

None of these blueprints include a role for behavioural insights in supporting desired reforms, in spite of governments’ growing expertise in this area. Our report illustrates how behavioural insights could be used—from promoting collaboration by using future visualisation techniques in the performance appraisal process to encouraging a focus on results by using loss aversion bias to incentivize greater investment in rigorous programme evaluation.

We also highlight instances where governments have effectively applied BI principles to bring about culture change, even though these efforts were not intended as BI interventions. For instance, Idea Street—a social innovation platform used by a number of UK central government departments—is a prime example of how gamification can promote in-house innovation.

While our report focuses on the way governments might use behavioural insights to reshape the public service, we also believe that internally-oriented nudges can support the broader BI agenda.

As the recent post on this site points out, “internal nudges” can play an important role in BI trials aimed at changing citizen behaviour. To be effective, these trials typically involve changing the (often long-established) working practices and cultures of frontline practitioners. BI interventions can help. What is more, there is already a precedent in NSW. The state’s Behavioural Insights Unit found that putting incentives in place to encourage staff behaviour change was crucial in a recent healthcare trial.

Many jurisdictions already have the right support infrastructure in place. Specialist BI teams exist at both the national level (e.g. UK and US) and the state/provincial level (e.g. Ontario and of course your BIU in NSW). So why not utilize this expertise and explore ways that behavioural insights can support internal reforms?”

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