copy the linklink copied!Executive summary

Human behaviour can be a mystery. Policy makers often assume that humans make “rational” decisions and build policy based on this model. However, social context and behavioural biases often influence people’s abilities to act rationally.

Recognising this, policy makers around the world are now turning to the field of behavioural insights (BI) for a clear methodology that generates evidence on how people actually behave to enhance the way policy is designed and delivered.

It is within this context that the OECD began frontier work on the application of BI to changing the behaviour of organisations, with a focus on fostering elements of a culture of safety in the energy sector. This work was conducted with energy regulators from four countries – Canada, Ireland, Mexico and Oman.

copy the linklink copied!From individuals to organisations: The impact of organisational behaviour on public policy and regulation

Most applications of BI so far have focused on the individual and on solving problems related to implementing public policies. However, for many policy problems – especially those related to enforcement and compliance with regulations – addressing the behaviour of organisations is also a key area of interest.

As the field of BI evolves to tackle more complex policy issues, the widespread perception is that for BI to have a greater impact, it can and should go beyond the study of individual-level decision processes. Governments around the world are turning their attention to meso- and macro-level applications of BI aimed at affecting group and organisational behaviour.

At first glance, applying BI to organisations seems different than applying it to individuals. However, research presented in this publication demonstrates that, although the locus of decision making is different in organisations, choice making is still fundamentally the same in many situations. Changing the behaviour of organisations through the individuals within them thus presents a clear opportunity for expanding the use of BI.

copy the linklink copied!Fostering elements of safety culture in the energy sector through behavioural insights

Despite the role of safety systems and risk management for policy makers around the world, safety culture and the behaviours that drive it are relatively underexplored. In the energy sector, regulators found clear evidence that many high-profile incidents have occurred due – at least in part – to poor organisational behaviour, including poor safety culture. These include major disasters such as the nuclear safety system failure at Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011, and the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010.

The desire to prevent incidents like these strongly supported further research into safety culture from the perspective both of regulators and of regulated entities. The OECD joined with the Canadian Energy Regulator (CER, formerly the National Energy Board of Canada, NEB); the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU) in Ireland; the Agency for Safety, Energy and Environment (ASEA) in Mexico; and the Authority for Electricity Regulation (AER) in Oman to test the application of BI to safety culture.

The experiments were carried out in two phases and tested 6 insights. Phase 1 tested the effects of various types of safety-related messengers (information sources), feedback and social norms with regulators and large-scale regulated entities in all countries. Phase 2 extended this work to small-scale registered electrical contractors and registered gas installers in Ireland, further testing both the effects of messengers and how to improve inspections through implementation intentions (prompting commitment to a plan of action), primacy (focus attention on areas by placing them first) and personalisation (using information about the recipient).

Some of the key findings are as follows:

  • The perception of the levels of safety culture was lowest amongst front-line workers in regulated entities and regulators, improving through the middle and senior management chain in regulated entities. This suggests the need to tailor messages to the audience, as a fundamental difference in perception may influence the take-up of the message.

  • Comparative results were mixed, varying by each national perspective and context. Overall, it was found that messages from someone one step “above” but socially close worked best; some feedback was better than no feedback, though it was not clear what the best type of feedback was; and social norms performed least effectively, except for descriptive norms in Mexico.

  • Entities under newer regulatory schemes and organisations were most influenced by BI at the small-scale level in Ireland. It was found that inspections could be improved by combining primacy with an implementation intention; personalisation of non-conformity notices improve responsiveness of firms but not of individuals; and trainers were particularly effective messengers in Ireland.

copy the linklink copied!Guidance for policy makers: Towards a toolkit for fostering safety culture

The results from the experiments demonstrate the potential effectiveness of BI as a tool for influencing safety culture, while also highlighting its contextual nature and the need to adapt to each setting. The results and findings point to some suggestions for moving towards more practical tools and guidance to support policy makers in promoting safety culture.

The natural starting point is a toolkit for applying BI in general. The BASIC toolkit, which provides a process for applying BI from start to finish and released by the OECD in 2019, was under development during the course of these experiments and the steps were largely followed. This demonstrated the relevance and applicability of the BASIC methodology to studying safety culture.

The experiments also provided the following lessons that can help adapt BASIC to future work, and position the methodology in a holistic approach to fostering a culture of safety:

  1. 1. Use a multi-staged, iterative process when applying BI to safety culture that includes qualitative research, smaller-scale experiments for exploratory work, and, last, field experiments to test concrete results for a higher probability of success.

  2. 2. Understand the group you are trying to influence and adapt the behavioural insights accordingly.

  3. 3. Apply the six tested insights in a way that is best adapted to the specific context of safety culture.

  4. 4. Recognise the limitations of the state of knowledge in this field and its impact, especially given the fact that this is frontier work.

  5. 5. Continue research in areas identified by these experiments so that energy regulators and researchers can move forward and expand the collective knowledge of this field.


This document, as well as any data and map included herein, are without prejudice to the status of or sovereignty over any territory, to the delimitation of international frontiers and boundaries and to the name of any territory, city or area.

Photo credits: Cover: © Mert Toker/

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