January 15, 2014
All public policy involves behaviour change of some kind. This typically takes the form of direct intervention through setting rules and regulations and enforcing them, setting incentives in the form of benefits or taxation, and/or trying to persuade those targeted by policies through information and marketing campaigns.
However, changing people’s behaviour through policy is not simply a matter of setting rules and incentives and providing information, and expecting people to follow them rationally. While reasoning and rational calculus inform a large part of people’s behaviour, it is also constantly influenced by shortcuts, inaccuracies, intuition and various rough rules-of-thumb. In short, people will not only base their decisions on thinking that is fully rational in weighing all the available information, but also on thinking that is easily accessible to them.
This is a vital starting point for those concerned with policy-making. Knowing about how people live their lives in practice helps to account not just for poor individual choices but also for the regular patterns in individuals’ choices. People often pay attention to messages that emanate from messengers they find credible, and ignore others. They are loss averse, unwilling to admit failure, distracted by others they relate to, and shun overly complex things. Crucially, without external stimulus, they are unlikely to want to change habitual behaviour and choose a new default.
This report outlines the architecture of choice and decisions that results from this picture. It explains the implications for policy-makers, distinguishing between doing things better and doing better things. This creates various opportunities and additional levers to consider for policy-makers seeking more positive policy impacts, greater efficiency and changes that are organic and self-sustaining.
The report begins by introducing a pragmatic view of human behaviour, applies this perspective to how change takes place in different sectors, and emphasises the benefits of targeting change at a fence-sitting middle that copies leaders and isolates laggards.
Thereafter, the report applies these principles and concepts in three specific policy areas: developing the next phase of an existing policy to build equalities leadership among the private sector; scoping a strategy to ensure engagement with smaller firms on workplace equalities issues; and stimulating governmental and private sector interventions to deliver improved outcomes for female entrepreneurs.
The report then assembles eight high level practical lessons for policy-makers. These range from some effective tools that recur in ‘nudge’ interventions across government (typically refinements in communication with public service users) through to interventions to redesign policy and the way in which it is delivered. These lessons include illustrations from the field of equalities policy as well as other policy domains.
The main conclusions are threefold: first, designing policies, processes, institutions and delivery around people’s behavioural quirks is promising; second, there is considerable potential in the application of these insights to the field of equalities policy, including in areas where policy impacts have previously been limited; and finally, the practical tools and pointers that are delivered are central to improving policy professionals’ capabilities, underpinning open policy-making and wider civil service reform.