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The Global Spread of Behavioural Insights: Conditions for Success of a Central Unit

30th Jan 2015

Last Friday, our CEO (David Halpern) and Managing Director (Owain Service) attended a big OECD conference on the use of behavioural insights in policy. David co-chaired the event, and Owain led a session on mainstreaming behavioural insights in to government institutions.

With delegations flying in from across the globe, it was another illustration of how far things have come since the Behavioural Insights Team was established in 2010. In those days, we were the only unit of our kind. On Friday, alongside Ambassadors from all OECD states, there were representatives from newly established teams or networks in the US, Germany, Israel, the Netherlands, Denmark, and New Zealand, and many others interested in how they might take ideas being used by these teams to apply to their own policy areas. And alongside national governments, there is growing interest from international organisations. The European Commission has set up a new unit, the World Bank recently published its World Development Report on the use of behavioural science, and the OECD (through this seminar and subsequent events) is looking at how it can play a coordinating role across the developed world and apply some of the findings from behavioural economics to its own work around markets and economies.

It was therefore no surprise that much of the discussion centred around the way in which behavioural insights functions can be established and their criteria for success. For these purposes, Owain used a mnemonic that David coined at a recent Harvard conference to describe the conditions in which a central unit or team can gain traction. Sligthly obscurely, the mnemonic is ‘Apples’ (Administration, Politics, People, Location, Experimentation, Scholarship):

Administration: to be a success, a central team have people on it who understand the machinery of government. You can know all the literature you like, but with no traction within government, things will be hard. BIT was fortunate to have, in its early days, a core group of people who’d previously worked in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit.

Politics: in the early days especially, it is very important to have senior political support. BIT has always had very close support from both the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister.

People: this, we think, is the most important lesson of all. You are nothing without your people. So being able to, for example, control your own recruitment is essential for a team that requires specialist skills. This was also a central recommendation from a recent IFG report on prime ministerial units of any kind

Location: in government, it matters where you are located. Being physically close to your political sponsors is both symbolically important and helps cement ties.

Experimentation: one of the key lessons that BIT learnt early was embedding a culture of testing and trialling, as a means of being able to demonstrative efficacy.

Scholarship: alongside the administrative ties, strong links with academia are essential. Knowing and being able to apply the behavioural science literature is, after all, the core of what behavioural insight units do. And being able to run randomised controlled trials cannot be done without specialist training and expertise.