I have always been passionate about using evidence to create more effective public services and influence for the better the decisions people make in their everyday lives.
In my first public intervention as Cabinet Secretary, I talked about the benefits to the nation’s health of the evidence-based work of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). And I asked a question: if NICE makes sense for medicine, why don’t we have a NICE for the other public services? This was only partly rhetorical.
Four years on, we have seven What Works Centres along the lines of NICE, operating across the policy spectrum, from crime to wellbeing, to help establish more effective policies, both in impact and cost.
The What Works Network complements the work of the previously established Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), with which it shares an empirical – even experimental – approach to taking on the challenges we face. BIT is a trailblazer in applying behavioural science to public services, based on analysis of what people actually do in given circumstances. (This ‘soft’ approach to changing people’s behaviour quickly earned BIT the unofficial name of “the Nudge Unit”.)
It was the first government entity in the world dedicated to this work, and started off as a small unit here in the Cabinet Office. It is now jointly owned by the UK Government and innovation charity Nesta, and helps administrations around the world learn from UK best practice. It has grown four-fold since leaving government, and is helping set up similar units in Australia and Singapore, while a New York office works across North America.
The focus of behavioural science, by definition, is on people and practice not abstract concepts, and sums up why many of us choose to work in the public service – finding practical ways to make people’s lives better.
The Prime Minister recently wrote about the need for humanity in public service – “a sympathetic understanding of the problems confronting the people we’re all here to serve. That understanding helps us to provide humane, professional services and to answer the public’s questions properly. It also helps us to develop policies.”
Mobile phone theft risk
I think it is fair to say that there was originally some scepticism among ministers, and even a few permanent secretaries, about using behavioural insights to create policy. It was thought by some to be a new age fad, having little connection with the 'real world’. BIT’s work shows this view was quite wrong. BIT challenges traditional and often unfounded assumptions, and tests and trials its own ideas – for example, are late taxpayers more likely to respond to certain messages – before scaling them up into action.
Let’s look at something many of us have in common, the mobile phone and – too often – the experience of having it stolen. Until recently, the police, manufacturers – and thieves – knew pretty much which phones were most at risk. The only people who didn’t were the rest of us, the consumers. BIT analysed crime data to produce an index of which phones are most likely to be targeted. Bringing together behavioural insight and data transparency, the impact on the phone market and crime rates is expected to follow what happened in car security two decades ago. Better-informed consumers will not only keep their phones safer, they will drive improvements by demanding and choosing phones that are more secure.
Important, practical, evidence-based work like this is why I look forward to chairing meetings of the steering board that sets the programme for BIT’s work for the UK Government.
Our next meeting will look at the BIT Update Report 2013-15, published today, which shows results from dozens of trials, including:
the proportion of people owing the largest 1% of tax debts who paid up within the deadline, jumped by 17 points, after BIT and HMRC devised new messages emphasising that their taxes fund public services
the number of small business bosses clicking on information about government grants rose by between 1.6% and 2.4% after BIT added a simple message to 400,000 government emails, saying their company had been “chosen” for the assistance (the grant was, after all, targeted only at some businesses)
a change in messaging to encourage organ donation showed that a message based on reciprocal action worked best (“If you needed an organ transplant would you have one? If so please help others”), adding 100,000 donors to the register in 12 months
The report illustrates a UK Government success story. It shows how BIT have taken an idea that was lampooned in some quarters and have demonstrated that it works; and it shows how UK civil servants can quickly adopt new ideas to develop effective policy.
So, please, read the report. See what lessons could apply to your own policy area, and think about running trials in order to understand better what works.
Above all, I hope you will be encouraged to think 'nudge’. Sometimes, legislation is absolutely necessary, but it can be a blunt instrument, removing choice, and isn’t always the best option. Using behavioural insights to give people a ‘nudge’ in a different direction, allowing them to act in their own interests in a more informed way, can bring about change that benefits everyone.
The BIT MINDSPACE report helps you draw on the increasingly rich findings from the behavioural sciences. It provides a simple framework to help policy makers apply behavioural insights.