The benefits of behavioural insights

News story
We sat down with Dr Kim Louw from NSW’s Behavioural Insights Unit, to unpack the benefits behind our new government buzz word
Dr Kim Louw takes a selfie with attendees of one of her behavioural insights information sessions

Image: Dr Kim Louw captures a selfie at a recent presentation to staff at a Landgate Innovation event

Since the first ever Behavioural Insights Team was established in the UK Cabinet Office in 2010, behavioural insight units have sprung up across the globe. So how could behavioural insights (BI) be applied within the Western Australian context?

That was the question posed to Dr Kim Louw, Senior Advisor for the NSW Behavioural Insights Unit. For the past two months, Kim has worked with the Public Sector Reform team to consider opportunities to build behavioural insight capability within the WA public sector.

We sat down with Kim to speak more plainly about BI and why she is such an enthusiastic advocate.

What exactly is behavioural insights?

Behavioural insights, or BI, is the application of behavioural and social sciences to public policy and services. BI teams also use robust evaluation methodologies, like randomised-controlled trials, to really test what works. Ultimately, the goal of BI is to design better policy and services to deliver better outcomes for citizens.

Give us your best BI soundbite?

I think a classic one is “small changes can have surprisingly big impacts”. One thing that springs to mind is something the Chief Executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, Dr David Halpern, said in a recent interview during a visit to Sydney. He spoke of how “the way in which a teacher gives feedback to a student, or the way in which a probation officer literally shuts the cell door, or talks to an offender, that these can be, and are, really consequential”.

I think that’s the really exciting thing about BI, we are trying to understand how even these small, seemingly insignificant things, can have large impacts in the ‘nudge’ space. Increasingly the field is also looking at really big complex behaviourally-informed initiatives that involve systemic change.

What’s the theory behind BI?

I like to say that BI is a big tent where lots of academic disciplines are welcome and invited. It draws on theory from behavioural and social sciences – psychology, behavioural economics, anthropology, sociology – but we also draw from marketing, communications and neuroscience. A large component of BI is also experimentation, so with that we draw on the data and implementation sciences too. I’m sure I’ve missed some!

Are there any common misconceptions?

I think the main one is that people tend to believe that BI will either solve all of their problems or none of their problems. The answer is probably somewhere between the two.

Understanding human behaviour is really tough so we know going in that not every idea is going to work. That is why BI teams around the world try to test our ideas as robustly as we possibly can.

Roughly 30 – 50 percent of BI interventions don’t have a significant impact on behaviour. While that might seem high, I think we should be proud that we’re testing and trialling things. By doing so, we make sure that money isn’t wasted on ideas that don’t work or won’t deliver great outcomes for citizens. Through testing and iterating ideas, we can be really sure that they do actually lead to behaviour change and better outcomes for citizens.

How can public servants practically apply BI?

I think the best way to start incorporating BI in your work is to visualise spraying a can of WD40 on the way government works and how we design policy and services. By working to ease and remove all the tiny, seemingly insignificant, frictions and pain points that citizens experience when interacting with government. Just by doing that we can start to build our services around citizens, rather than asking citizens to build their lives around services.

The Behavioural Insights Team’s EAST framework comes into play here – the ‘E’ in EAST stands for making it easy for people. If you’re thinking about applying BI, I’d start there.

Is BI ever really done or is it a case of continual improvement?

As I said earlier, I think we’re still learning a lot about human behaviour. In fact, as more and more BI teams are set up around the world (at last count there are over 202!), we’re learning how some concepts that work really well in one country or context haven’t worked in another. So it is definitely a situation of continual improvement and I hope we get better over time at predicting what will work.

I think we’re right at the beginning of a big transformation in how governments around the world operate.

Where do you think BI could be best applied in WA?

I think the Our Priorities: Sharing Prosperity whole-of-government targets set by Premier McGowan present some really fantastic opportunities. All of them are tough, complex issues but if those targets are met, they will mean really positive change for the citizens of WA. There are a lot of opportunities to think about applying BI to these priorities – from thinking about how to make it easier for households to recycle their waste or how we can get better health outcomes for children – all of this will require some innovative design of policy and services that promotes behavioural change.

Which brings us to the most important question. You’re leaving next week but when are you going to be back in WA?

Actually I’m going to be back in December! But this time it will just be for a holiday. Looking forward to spending some time relaxing with family and friends here after such an amazing (and busy!) time talking about BI in WA over the last two months. So you will probably find me at the beach.

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Page reviewed 13 November 2019
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