Like The Hub?
Join our community.

Amanda Lang: How behavioural science could seriously improve government performance


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.”

Opinion: Mandatory national service is slavery


The idea of mandatory national service rears its head from time to time. From the political Right, calls for national service are motivated by a desire to shore up patriotism, a shared sense of national identity, or the military. The political Left believes that national service can provide the solidarity or resources needed to address sweeping social programs.

But national service is not a feel-good project we should unite behind. Mandatory national service is slavery. 

This bears saying because, as Arianna Huffington put it a decade ago, “national service is an idea that cuts across our stale Right-Left divisions and enjoys wide bipartisan support.” This support is perennial. Earlier this year, in the spirit of instilling us with a more robust national identity and addressing sweeping social problems, Ginny Roth made a pitch in The Hub for mandatory national service for every 18-year-old. She suggests offering a choice between civilian and military service. She argues we would shore up our military when the enlisted took that route and address labour shortages in elder care and childcare through civilian service by everyone else. 

We do not care for the euphemism of “service”. This policy would amount to compelled labour for people who are not able to refuse. It is especially unfair that most young Canadians would be forced into service before ever being able to vote in a federal election.

One response to the claim that national service amounts to slavery is that sometimes—for example, in the case of a military draft in the face of an existential threat—it is necessary. We’re skeptical of its necessity even in that case (an existential threat seems like it should provide its own motivation). But note that this is not an argument that a military draft is not gussied up slavery. It’s an argument that sometimes there are problems so dire that slavery is a price we have to pay.

Roth’s call for national service does not—most calls for national service do not—even try to make the case that the problem is so dire. 

Some might say that democratic implementation would imbue any law mandating national service with legitimacy and implied consent. We think it’s dangerous to say that if a majority votes away the rights of a minority then those rights are legitimately forfeit (especially given Canada’s past treatment of Indigenous and minority Canadians).

There are practical economic problems with Roth’s proposal as well. Forcing an entire age cohort into three sectors seems likely to affect labour availability outside of those sectors. This misallocation of labour would have spillover effects that would disrupt the entire economy.

Mandatory volunteering as a requirement for a secondary school diploma has not transformed Ontario into a province of people more devoted to service. What evidence is there to suggest that national service would create more civic-minded Canadians?

And how can we know that the injection of (inexperienced, unskilled) labour would be welcomed by the chosen sectors? Will the residents of nursing homes really benefit from an influx of unwilling workers whose only qualification is that they dislike that option the least? Knowing they will be gone in a year will the enlisted be given useful training, or will they sullenly mop floors while serving their time?

Milton Friedman famously quipped that an army of mercenaries is surely better than an army of slaves. This sentiment extends to other fields of national service. 

Further, implementing such a law would require sweeping legal changes. It would and should face court challenges. If the program is ruled unconstitutional, will the government be required to compensate thousands of young Canadians who lost a year of their lives? 

We are classical liberals. We believe that one of the proudest parts of this political tradition is its opposition to slavery. The abolitionism of Thomas Clarkson, the wholesale rejection of the slave state’s legitimacy by Lysander Spooner, and the stalwart opposition to the military draft by Milton Friedman are political legacies worth celebrating. 

You don’t have to be a libertarian or classical liberal to see the moral objections to forcing thousands of Canadians to labour against their will. There are other, less problematic solutions to the problems this policy seeks to address. 

For example, to address labour shortages we believe that significantly lower accreditation requirements for workers and allowing for on-the-job training could get more bodies in the door while reintroducing economic opportunity for more Canadians, especially those with relevant work experience outside Canada. If the government has a role, it should focus on regulating the safety and quality of the services provided rather than strangling innovation by micro-managing the ways that people may provide those services. 

We are incorrigible peaceniks and worry that a larger military would encourage foreign intervention. Given thousands of additional soldiers, perhaps the Canadian government would join more ill-conceived adventures, like the Iraq War. Requiring the recruitment of willing volunteers helps to hold military leadership to account. Forcing thousands of young Canadians into service will make it easier for the military to get away with bad behaviour—something with which it already struggles.

As to the claim that mandatory national service would instill a shared sense of purpose and identity among all Canadians, we insist that the enslavement of young Canadians is no basis for a sense of pride.  

Maybe you’re not convinced by our arguments. We hope they at least instill enough doubt to convince you that the proponents of national service cannot clear the very high bar needed to justify a national program of forced labour.

There are many ways that we can serve each other, and we should make an effort to find the ones that matter to us. Find a worthy cause and donate your time or money. Help a neighbour who could use it. Consider joining the military or building a career in elder or child care. 

But the equal dignity with which we should treat our fellow Canadians demands that we let them make that choice as freely as we make ours.