BIT Canada’s first year

In conversation with BIT Canada Director Sasha Tregebov reflecting on the first year of setting up a new behavioural insights team


BIT Canada has been open for a year now, what’s it been like?

Sasha Tregebov: It’s been really uneventful, we certainly haven’t been beset by any challenges outside our own control like a global pandemic!

It’s been a wonderful and gratifying 12 months. We’ve found lots of really interesting partners to collaborate with and projects to work on

It’s been a wild year. Things have obviously not gone exactly to plan but from a BIT Canada perspective it’s been a wonderful and gratifying 12 months. We’ve found lots of really interesting partners to collaborate with and projects to work on. We’ve completed 6 or 7 projects with another 8 or so currently underway and have been able to work across a lot of issues that really matter to Canadians and matter to public sector and non-profit organisations across the country. It’s been exciting.


And we’ve been building up our team. We started with a small team of three and just hired our sixth and seventh team members. That’s been great as the more skills you bring in the more new perspectives you have on  old problems. Overall, I think I couldn’t have hoped for much more.


The BIT Canada team


Who have you been working with?

When we set up the office here we had an intuition that our work here would be really really diverse both in terms of the policy issues that we’d address, but also the partners that we’d work with, which is largely what’s happened. We’ve been doing a lot of work with the federal government, which is exciting because of the reach and scale of their activities. 


For example we’ve had great projects looking at housing affordability and some of the psychological barriers that may limit us from making the best choices for ourselves when considering our housing options. And we’ve done really interesting work on pay transparency and pay gaps and how the use of data can help Canadian employers become more equitable, building off some really wonderful work that was done by BIT in the UK that inspired the Canadian government and led to them seeking out our advice.


We’ve also been doing quite a bit of capacity building and training work with a wonderful organization called the Canada School of Public Service which is the in-house training and professional development unit of the Canadian government.


Another area of work that I’m really excited about is with non-profit and philanthropic organizations. We have a great partner, the United Way, in particular one of their regional arms, United Way Halton & Hamilton, which has this compelling vision for how behavioural science can transform the provision of financial empowerment services.


Helping people get the government benefits and tax refunds that they are entitled to, helping people build up the skills they need to manage their finances, increase their income, reduce their expenditures, get into safer banking products. They’ve gone and sought out funding successfully from the federal government and from a provincial funding agency and that’s allowed us to connect to these really amazing organizations doing great work on the ground.


That recently culminated in one very powerful example, an email trial where we were able to use the behavioural science technique of enhanced active choice to really get people to think about the value of engaging in these financial empowerment services and make a really thoughtful decision about whether to take up the support. In doing so we were able to get almost $70,000 back in the pockets of families in the region.


And then we’ve also been doing some interesting work with regulatory authorities. I think one of the most critical but under-explored areas of applied behavioural science is when it comes to the nuts and bolts of regulation, especially around consumer protection. That’s been really fascinating as well.


That mix of projects and partners was strong from the outset and has continued to be strong over the course of the year and I think the future holds a lot more of the same. I’d love to broaden those partnerships further, I’d love to do more work with cities – we’ve just had our first one in Canada with Toronto Public Health as part of their Herculean efforts to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, and I’d love us to work with private sector partners given the roles they have in all of our lives.


Sasha Tregebov

Building on that, what opportunities do you see with private sector partners?

I think there’s a lot of opportunity around health in particular. If you think about all the things that determine our health – you know, what are we eating and drinking, grocery retailers are hugely influential there. Medical adherence is such a big issue, and pharmacies can play such an important role.


I’ve also been thinking about employers, specifically in their role as employers, as in how well are their staff being supported? How equitably are they being treated? To what extent could we give employers a boost in achieving their stated intent around increased workplace equity, stronger employment experience, more skills development and human capital building?


How well have you found the field of applied behavioural science to be understood in Canada?

It’s important to recognize that there have been effective behavioural insights organisations in Canada before we set up here in 2019. In 2015 the Ontario government set up Canada’s first behavioural insights unit and they have been really doing strong work over the years and building that awareness.


There’s a great research unit led by Dilip Soman at the University of Toronto Rotman School of Management, BEAR – Behavioural Economics in Action Research Centre at Rotman, that has been educating students and building awareness within the federal government as well as many other organisations.


When we opened our office here, the policy community, in particular the policy innovation community, was really aware of behavioural science. They had read about it and had maybe seen some examples of it in practice.


Other organisations, like government departments that don’t have that policy innovation function, that are a little more operationally and implementation focused, in these critical groups the awareness has been a bit lower, even though the case for doing behavioural insights work is just as strong, if not stronger. 


But I think overall awareness is there and is good, but what’s not there is impact at scale. There have been a lot of great proof of concept projects and meaningful projects generating positive outcomes.


It’s different to the UK say, where we’ve had some really big wins, not just BIT, but we as a community of applied behavioural science researchers with things like with pensions, obesity, antimicrobial resistance, tax payment, and so forth. In those areas there’s been impact at a ‘macro’ scale where you can look around a room with your family and friends and think ‘yes, this has affected and benefited you’ in a direct way. That’s yet to happen here in Canada – but we are up for the challenge. 


So I do think there’s more awareness building to be done, more proof of concept to be done, but in those pockets of public administration, of social impact delivery, where awareness is there, where buy-in is there, we need to keep pushing, the job isn’t done.


BIT Canada can and will play a role in that but it obviously needs to be broader than us. We are keen to be a catalyst within that strong existing behavioural science community.


What do you think is your biggest challenge ahead?

BIT Canada may be new, but the Behavioural Insights Team isn’t new, applied behavioural science isn’t new. We have very strong methods. We have strong theory, building on the work academics and practitioners have done over decades and refined. We know how to work with large organizations whether in the public, private or non-profit sector, we know how to get things done, we’ve got the tools, we’ve got the proof points.


The challenge now is not to sit back now and say ‘This is great, let’s do more of the same, we’ve got a model that works’. Rather I think the challenge is to say ‘How can we go bigger? How can we go way bigger? How can we take this method, take this insight, take this theory and apply it to the very biggest programmes, the biggest policy initiatives that are being developed?’

I think the challenge is to say ‘How can we go bigger? How can we go way bigger?


And that’s going to be uncomfortable. It’s going to be uncomfortable for us, it’s going to be uncomfortable for senior decision makers in government because it’s going to look different.


It’s going to look different because they’re going to be thinking about human behaviour and psychology in a way that they haven’t really integrated into their decision making in the past at that big picture level. For us and for other practitioners and academics in this field it’s going to be challenging because we’re not going to be able to stay in the lane that we’ve defined. We’re going to need to work with a much wider range of disciplines.


There’s some work the government traditionally does so well, the sort of stakeholder analysis, the jurisdictional analysis. There are these really tried and true core elements of how policy development and analysis gets done. We have to figure out how to work within that, and how to be one voice at the table while maintaining the integrity and rigour that we bring.


How do you plan to navigate that challenge?

I think there need to be a lot of complementary strategies. How do we work from where we are? How do we take this great work that we’re doing on elements of these policy issues and engage with our partners in a deeper way and say: ‘And what’s the next step on this pathway?, What’s the implication for the overall policy framework?.’ And if we’re working in a province or in a region, what’s the implication of this for other provinces, for the territories, for other communities?


So part of that is taking the work that we are doing and saying the work is not done when the project is done. The work is bigger than the project, so what’s our role in that? We did a great project, we found a good approach and our partners have implemented that in the way that it was anticipated. Those are successes worth celebrating, but what have we not solved? What did we learn about what we didn’t solve? What did we learn that can be transposed into an even broader, larger scale context? I think that’s part of it.


I think another part of it is going to those senior decision makers, and going with a clear and compelling vision and approach to say: ‘I know you’ve heard about this behavioural science stuff, I know you’ve seen the power of nudges, there’s more that we can do. Your decisions that you’re accountable for that your ministers are accountable for can be improved. Here’s the compelling rationale, here’s the approach, can we rely on your leadership to try it, to see what that looks like, to learn from it?’


So there’ll need to be multiple people having that conversation and ultimately it will require and does require leadership of people far outside of BIT as well!

It’s never that easy to say ‘yes’ to something that’s new

Do you feel people are open to that?

I do. Part of it’s a behavioural problem – people have limited bandwidth. The attention of these people is being pulled in many different directions – so we need to make it easy for them to say ‘Yes’. There are challenges. It’s never that easy to say ‘Yes’ to something that’s new. But I think there’s more that we can do and I think the willingness is there. I think what’s not there is the window. We need to open that window, that space, to do that.


If we knew exactly how to do that we’d have done it already, but there are levers we can try pulling and other partners that we can engage with, for example in the Canadian evaluation community, in the Canadian behavioural science community. We can go in force and go together, not just as the Director of BIT Canada on my own, but with others in a more forceful and together way.


Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give the Sasha of 12 months ago? 

Wear a mask! One thing that I didn’t realise is just how deep the talent pool in Canada for our work is. We’ve received over 250 or 300 applications every time we’ve posted a position and they’ve been good applications, so there is enormous potential in Canada for really excellent applied behavioural science work.


There’s huge interest. People have the backgrounds that they need to develop with the right help and the right training obviously. That’s been eye opening for me, how many people really want to do this work. That’s been a delightful surprise. So I guess I’d say “Get ready to review a LOT of job applications!”