Executive summary

The “ABCD” of behavioural insights in public policy

Behavioural science has shown that context and biases can influence decision making. Everday examples of this include forgetting important appointments, filling out forms incorrectly because they are too difficult to understand, and even driving above the speed limit because other drivers are doing so.

A better understanding of human behaviour can lead to better policies. Policy makers looking for a more data-driven and nuanced approach to policy making should consider what actually drives the decisions and behaviours of citizens rather than relying on assumptions of how they should act.

This is exactly what behavioural insights (BI) provides. Drawing from rigorous research from behavioural economics and the behavioural sciences, BI can help public bodies understand why citizens behave as they do and pre-test which policy solutions are the most effective before implementing them on a large scale. By integrating BI into policy making, governments can better anticipate the behavioural consequences of a policy and, ultimately, design and deliver more effective policies that improve the welfare of citizens.

Below are successful behaviourally informed strategies and their impact, based on the “ABCD” of behavioural drivers:

  1. 1. Attention: People have limited attention and recall, but tend to respond to environmental cues. For example, patients may miss their medical appointments. A behavioural strategy would be to send SMS reminders that include the cost of a missed appointment to the health system.

  2. 2. Belief formation: People tend to underestimate speed and be overconfident when performing tasks, such as driving. For example, drivers may speed up at sharp turns, resulting in more car crashes. Behavioural strategies have included painting white lines on the road to create the illusion of speeding up, so that people slow down.

  3. 3. Choice: People tend to align with the behaviour of others and what others think is appropriate. For example, sending letters to residential utility customers comparing their electricity use to that of their neighbours can drive households to improve their energy efficiency.

  4. 4. Determination: When it comes to long-term goals, people often have difficulty staying motivated if left to their own devices without any plans and feedback. For example, this is often the case for job seekers struggling to find work. Behavioural strategies have successfully used a “commitment pack” that includes meetings with an employment advisor to create a concrete job-hunting plan.

At all stages in the policy cycle, policies can be improved with BI through a process that looks at behaviours, analysis, strategies, interventions and change (abbreviated to “BASIC”). This allows policy makers to get to the root of the policy problem, gather evidence on what works, show support for government innovation, and ultimately improve policy outcomes. This publication presents policy officials with a toolkit that guides them through these BASIC stages to start using an inductive and experimental approach for more effective policymaking.

How to use the BASIC toolkit

This toolkit gives a detailed how-to manual for policy officials and practitioners working with public agencies on applying BI to public policy, as well as a repository of approaches, proofs of concepts and methodological standards for designing and implementing a behaviourally-informed policy intervention. It begins with an introductory guide for policy officials on the process through which BI can identify, scope and address policy problems.

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