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BX2018: Taking a behavioural approach to stopping crime

30th May 2018

The second of our series of articles in the lead up to the 2018 Behavioural Exchange in Sydney outlines our recent work on crime and domestic violence, in the UK and Australia. This area will be the focus of one of the breakout sessions.

Director of Home Affairs and International Programmes, Simon Ruda, joins Karen Tindall, Senior Advisor at our Sydney Office, to talk through their projects and experiences.

Simon: Since the inception of the Behavioural Insights Team in 2010, we’ve been supporting efforts to reduce crime at national and local levels, for example, publishing the first Government backed index to show which models of mobile phone were most targeted by thieves, or partnering with local police forces to test behavioural approaches to crime reduction.

Thinking of crime as a single area can seem peculiar, given the range of behaviours and related motivations therein. But, broadly speaking, we can consider two types of application of behavioural insights here:

1. Choice architecture and information based prompts or nudges, designed to improve the effectiveness of existing systems, often most effective at targeting single actions.

Some examples of the trials we’ve undertaken to test these types of intervention include:

    1. Collecting phone numbers of offenders released on bail and using text messages to remind them to turn up at court;
    2. Encouraging landlords to engage with the law by signalling the authority of the UK Government.

2. Interventions to promote habitual behaviours by influencing active thought and helping end users overcome behavioural biases

Some examples from this category include:

    1. using procedural justice techniques to build legitimacy in, and, hence, compliance with, speed limits, leading to a large reduction in reoffending;
    2. using a values affirmation prompt to eliminate disparities between ethnic groups’ probabilities of passing a key stage in the recruitment process to become a Police Officer;
    3. creating a teachable moment that captures attention to train end users how to resist phishing attacks, leading to a large reduction in vulnerability.

Karen: In Australia, much of our work on crime has focused on domestic violence. It is an area where both types of behavioural intervention, as described above, could lead to valuable outcomes. Any effective effort to reduce its prominence has the potential to relieve much suffering and free up significant amounts of Police time.

Simon: Domestic violence is an issue that tears lives apart right across the world. It is complex and sadly, it is relatively common. I’m proud to say that BIT has been working on this issue in the UK, Australia, and North America, as well as various countries in Latin America. However, BIT’s work on domestic violence is most developed in Australia.

Karen, what was the specific challenge your team took on in Australia related to domestic and family violence?

Karen: In our Sydney office we’ve been supporting the New South Wales government’s BI Unit (BIU) in the Department of Premier and Cabinet to tackle the challenge of reducing domestic violence reoffending, which was named a Premier’s Priority, showing a commitment to a whole-of-government approach to the challenge.

Over the past four years we have supported BIU in partnership with NSW Police and the Department of Justice (DoJ) to design and implement a number of interventions that encourage defendants to comply with the conditions in their Apprehended Domestic Violence Order (ADVO).

Simon: Reoffending is often considered an ingrained behaviour and as such is notoriously difficult to shift without significant resources. How did the team go about approaching this?

Karen: Well, when we started working on this challenge back in 2014 there was indeed scepticism that BI could shift behaviour in a wicked problem such as domestic and family violence. So, it was important not to rush into problem-solving.

Before co-designing the BI interventions, the team first spent time understanding the challenge from a BI perspective. The head of our Sydney Office, Rory, worked with the BIU team to conduct fieldwork across urban and rural NSW. This included interviewing perpetrators and victims of domestic violence and a wide range of frontline staff and services, as well as observing court proceedings, courthouse interactions, and the surrounding neighbourhoods.

That initial exploratory phase revealed that the court proceedings and documentation was full of legalese. This meant a lot of victims and defendants didn’t fully understand the ADVO, what a breach was, and what would happen if the defendant breached their orders. We also found that in some areas there was a normalisation of violence, and negative norms being reinforced within the ADVO itself.  

On the back of these insights, a simplified and behaviourally informed ‘Plain-English ADVO’ was rolled out state-wide in 2016.

Simon: We’ve often found that the way justice systems communicate with end users doesn’t always take into account the requirements of those users. And that early work identified subsequent intervention opportunities aimed at both of the categories I mentioned earlier, I think?

Karen: Yes, that’s right; these behavioural insights interventions target both single actions and habitual behaviours. The initial exploratory work and co-design process with the DoJ and NSW Police pointed to a number of intervention points that suited BI interventions – information based prompts to improve engagement with existing systems, as well as interventions to influence habitual behaviours, active thought and engagement.

A good example of the former is text messages sent to defendants the day before their ADVO court appearance, reminding them to attend. A recent randomised controlled trial conducted with the BIU found that these text messages significantly increased court attendance and reduced the time it took to finalise court cases.

Simon: We’ve been using similar approaches in London, where we have been working with the world’s first modern Police force, and one of the largest – the Met Police – to support victims of domestic violence during their journey through the criminal justice system. We are currently running a large scale randomised controlled trial to test the effectiveness of the intervention and will publicise the result next year.

Karen: Hopefully, we’ll hear about those results at BX2019! In the meantime, we’ll be working with the BIU on a program that uses the second approach you outlined, Simon (i.e. targeting habitual behaviours). It is a pilot court-based program with Aboriginal defendants through the DoJ Aboriginal Services Unit. Defendants are given the option to meet with an Aboriginal Client and Community Support Officer to develop a tailored strategy to comply with their ADVO. The program, which is currently being evaluated, incorporates elements of behavioural commitment prompts and planning strategies, such as mental contrasting with implementation intentions and text messages which are composed by the defendant to remind them of their plan and motivation.

We are also really excited to hear more about how the program was implemented in NSW at BX2018 at the session we are running on how to scale nudges. I know that you won’t be there Simon, but hopefully, we’ll see many of our readers there!

To catch the Behavioural Insights Team at the event, come to our session on Taking Nudges to Scale where we will be exploring the barriers, enablers, risks, and opportunities, for doing this in practice. We hope to see you there.