Amanda Lang: How behavioural science could seriously improve government performance

Using behavioural science as a lens, rather than a tool to nudge with, is the next evolution for government
People line up outside the Guy Favreau federal building while waiting to apply for a passport in Montreal on June 26, 2022. Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press.

The following is the latest installment of The Hub’s new series The Business of Government, hosted by award-winning journalist and best-selling author Amanda Lang about how government works and, more importantly, why it sometimes doesn’t work. In this five-part series, Lang conducts in-depth interviews with experts and former policymakers and puts it all in perspective for the average Canadian. Listen to the accompanying interview with Michael Hallsworth, the managing director of the BIT Americas, on your favourite podcast app or at The Hub.

Remember nudge policies?

Popularized in the 2000s, nudging was out of the behavioural science toolbox. The idea was that governments could help shape the choices and behaviour of citizens with subtle or even unconscious signals.

They could harness some of our human tendencies to get the results they want, like increasing organ donation by forcing us to opt out rather than opt in. Marketers now make use of behavioural psychology all the time, like driving up sales of the double patty hamburger by offering a triple patty because, suddenly, the double looks like a prudent choice.

A couple of decades later, governments still use those kinds of tactics, but as behavioural insights mature, they are also using them to understand their own internal systems and processes.

Michael Hallsworth is one of the world’s experts on applied behavioural science as managing director of Behavioural Insights Team, a UK-based group with a mission to improve policy and public services. He has advised governments and policymakers globally and sees the field in an era of new sophistication and maturity.

“We have made the case for behavioral science, people have shown it can make a difference. And now it’s a question of how much difference, what’s the right option, in which circumstance?” he says.

Rather than a tool for manipulation, Hallsworth says behavioural science used properly can empower us. “If people are aware of what produces a certain behavior, they can kind of invest in that,” he says.

For instance, changing your environment slightly, and removing temptation, can be much more effective than trying to use willpower to achieve a goal. “I’m not disempowering you by telling you that, in fact, I’m helping you do something more effective by telling you we overestimate our ability to use willpower when we are confronted with options,” he says.

It only makes sense then that large organizations like governments would use similar tools to improve their own operations. “I think there’s a massive, underappreciated opportunity here to improve the way government works itself,” Hallsworth says.

In his work in “behavioural government” he applied the understanding that systems inside a government, run as they are by people, use the same mental shortcuts, with the same strengths and failings, as the rest of us.

“Governments are overly optimistic. In terms of their plans, large projects tend to go over budget,” he offers as one example. Groupthink is another weakness, with a tendency to reinforce views that can lead to more extreme thinking. “There are ways you can build institutions differently and change the way they work to make these kinds of, if you like, biases less likely to happen. It requires an institutional approach.”

To counteract some of those weaknesses, it’s possible to build in what Hallsworth calls “break points” to stop and reassess assumptions. One way to do that is what is called a premortem, so that instead of waiting for something to go wrong and assess why, you give people license to voice all their doubts about a plan or course of action and work out what could go wrong in advance.

Behavioural Insights has spent quite a bit of time working with partners in the What Works Cities program to develop feedback mechanisms for city governments aimed at improving how they function with real data, and backed by science. It’s the kind of rigor Hallsworth thinks governments need to bring to their operations more broadly. “I don’t see this as a kind of nice to have, I think it can be really kind of central to the way governments work. Because most policy, most service provision is intended to have some kind of behavioral effects.”

There is another reason government needs to understand behavioural science and the ways it can be used—for good and ill. Private sector firms are also making use of it, including technology companies with access to vast pools of user data. Throw in artificial intelligence, and targeted interventions become extremely effective. “There is a prior question about the bounds of acceptability,” Hallsworth notes. “What do people want? How do you prevent it being creepy, how do you prevent it being inappropriate?”

One area where this kind of thinking can be helpful is a political one, namely the apparent polarization of people’s views. The power of groupthink is real, Hallsworth says, pointing to experiments where a simple math question is answered differently based on participants’ political preconceptions.

But the solution rooted in science to that kind of closed-mindedness is refreshingly simple: “Sometimes just asking people to explain how they think something works, can lead people to pause and reconsider.” It turns out that most of us suffer from something called “the illusion of explanatory depth,” which is when we think we know how things function, but when pressed, don’t. That simple thought exercise leads us to a more open mental state.

The key for Hallsworth is to understand that applying behavioural science isn’t about preying on our human neurological frailties, but about understanding our strengths, which can be rapid and unconscious, and directed well can help us navigate our lives better.

Hallsworth seems eager to see behavioural science applied more often to policy issues and their implications. “I think a lot of the time we’ve focused on changing specific aspects of how things are done. We can show that they had an impact.”

But understanding that those policy issues are the products of large complex systems is important —and using behavioural science as a lens to see through, rather than a tool to nudge with, is the next evolution for organizations like government.

That would allow policymakers to better assess how things are playing out—and perhaps as important, when something isn’t working as intended. “I think that’s the way forward, which I really would encourage governments to embrace.”

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