Posted by Behavioural Insights Unit on Wednesday December 11th, 2013

There has been a lot of research in to the way that BI can improve policies, service delivery and government interactions with customers; however, a recent report by the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto has looked at how BI can be turned inward – on the public service itself.

In Public Service Transformed: Harnessing the Power of Behavioural Insights authors Andrew Galley, Jennifer Gold and Sunil Johal argue that BI represents an effective but overlooked policy tool in driving public sector reform. Their argument is that sweeping changes to back office operations and frontline service delivery will not be effective in the long term without changing internal working cultures.

This is an important point to make and the report is helpful in highlighting the potential of internally-focused nudges. However, in practice, the distinction between external and internal nudges is less pronounced than the report suggests. Our experience in NSW supports the idea that changes to service delivery cannot be effective without changes being made to internal working cultures. As just one example, we have been running a trial at Westmead Hospital since August 2013 looking at increasing the use of private health insurance (for those who have it) in the emergency ward. This trial is a good example of the overlap between internal and external nudges. In this trial, participation from frontline workers like nurses and administrative staff, as well as staff from the Ministry of Health, has been instrumental to achieving changes in frontline services. Staff incentives have played a key role, and changing staff behaviour has been core to the success experienced in the trial.

The report provides eleven recommendations to transform internal working cultures, which are especially useful when looking at a systems level, or at the level of a big government department. Drawing out a few recommendations, the most practical are:

  • Making ‘sight lines’ visible: A culture of transparency should be fostered by ensuring public servants are made aware of the end result of their work, whether positive or negative. Governments should avoid situations where work simply disappears into a ’black hole’.
  • Loss aversion and unspent evaluation funds: The threat of losing resources is a far greater incentive than the prospect of gaining them. A small portion of departmental budgets should be earmarked for rigorous programme evaluation – and clawed back if unused. This will promote evidence-based policy and a clear focus on results.
  • Disclosure by default, ‘open process, open data’: Public servants should have more freedom to share information. Greater internal transparency is possible and information should be shared across government departments and with the public, unless a case can be explicitly made for withholding it.

The report has a specific focus on Canadian public sector organisations, but mentions the UK BI Team, Cass Sunstein’s former advisory role to the Obama administration, and DPC’s very own BI Unit in NSW on page 9. If you want a quick overview of the report, you can read the Guardian article Nudge Unit: Civil Servants Should Turn Behavioural Insights on Themselves.


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