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Organising and deciding

Questions for the Behavioural Insights Team

What are behavioural insights?

They’re the ideas and evidence that help to explain the decisions humans make. Like how we’ve all thought of switching energy providers for a better deal on our gas and electricity, but the hassle of filling out the form has put us off, even though we could save money. We are all influenced by a range of ‘biases’ similar to this, which can lead us to make judgments which are not always in our best interests. In fact, seemingly small factors can be hugely influential. Understanding this allows us to design services and programmes which benefit more people and change how people behave.

That sounds like common sense. Surely, we can do that ourselves?

Some insights from behavioural science are common sense, like the idea that people generally won’t do things unless they’re easy. The problem for many organisations and groups is, they haven’t designed their activities from the perspective of the ‘end-user’ and it is difficult to know where to start improving. Consider a tax reminder letter that was written by legal experts, but with very little thought given to the people who will eventually receive it.

What looks like common sense can also backfire. Behaviour is context-dependent and not always predictable, which is why rigorous evaluation is crucial to making sure behavioural insights achieve positive social impact.

Isn’t it something only governments do?

No! We at BIT have worked with many different organisations and groups, from local and national governments, to charities, and private companies. If your Big Local wants to get more people coming to local events or more volunteers involved in community projects we would like to see if behavioural insights could help. The only thing all our partners have in common is a desire to achieve positive social change, which we think our approach could support.

Well then how do you apply behavioural insights to a local community setting?

Our approach can be applied to projects big or small! Our methodology is called TEST: Target, Explore, Solution Trial.

Target. We refine the problem and are clear about the measurable outcome we want. This is when we think carefully about what behaviours we want to encourage or discourage, and how these changes could be measured.
Explore. We learn more about the context and any existing processes, as well as the priorities of the end-user (the person whose behaviour is the focus of the project). We want to understand why people do the things they do and any barriers to change.
Solution. We look for positive homegrown solutions to the problem we identified that we can build on with our behavioural insights.
Trial. We design a robust evaluation to make sure our intervention has impact.

Is it about manipulating people to do things they don’t want to do?

In all areas of life our behaviour is being influenced, whether it’s deliberate or not – like the way food is presented in a cafeteria influences what we buy for lunch. All of our projects have a social impact aim at their core, and by understanding behavioural insights we want to enable people to make better choices for themselves – this has always been BIT’s mission.

Most of the examples I’ve seen are about mailings to thousands of people. We’re more concerned about one housing estate…

We don’t come with ready-made solutions. All our interventions are developed by working closely with our partners and reflect their priorities. When working with smaller groups we are more pragmatic and look to find creative solutions appropriate to a local context.

A lot of our work focuses on improving communication, whether it’s text messages or flyers. This low-cost intervention can influence the behaviour of a group of any size, but the larger the group the more accurately we can measure a change in behaviour.

Other ways to influence behaviour include designing better incentives or making structural changes to a communal space. These interventions could all work on a housing estate.

How important is understanding the local context to your work?

Very important! To understand people’s behaviour, you need to understand their context. We’ll visit and observe every Big Local area we’ll be working with and meet the people who live there. We also consider your specific needs, in terms of your budget, timeframe, and whether other changes are planned that we could piggy back on.

If we go for this project, what is the lasting benefit?

We hope areas will see a real impact on the behaviour they want to influence and the change they had wanted to see. Going further Big Local areas involved will gain a new understanding of their systems and processes, and how their community “users” interact with them. To accompany this understanding we want to transfer the skills to continue the use of ‘Test, Learn, and Adapt’.

What if the initial results are underwhelming?

When we sit down with our partners we always consider issues like cost and potential impact. We test our interventions because we can’t always predict what’s going to work. However, finding out something doesn’t work can be as important as finding a solution that does – ensuring you don’t invest in something that isn’t effective. This will be a 12 month project with opportunity to work out what works and what doesn’t.

Wouldn’t it be better for us to employ a community engagement officer?

A community worker would certainly have useful ideas for increasing engagement. What behavioural insights can add is a different perspective and very detailed evidence based new solutions to try. The value of a partnership with BIT is that local areas get feedback on whether their approaches are working. This can be very motivating for the people who work hard every day as volunteers.