Behavioural Insights Team

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The Behavioural Insights Team was established by the Conservative and Liberal Democrats UK coalition government in 2010 to encourage individuals to adopt behaviour that benefits themselves and wider society. The team will devise ways to promote preferred behaviour by using behavioural economics and behavioural science in policy making.[1] There are plans to let the unit run for two years, winding down in summer 2012. [2] Based in the Cabinet Office the Behavioural Insights Team steering group is chaired by Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell who claims that the work done by the group "supports the Coalition Government’s commitment to reducing regulatory burdens on business and society, and achieving its goals as cheaply and effectively as possible" [3] The Behavioural Insights Team works closely with the Public Health Responsibility Deal networks, the Change4Life campaign and the corporations who comprise its membership, the Food Standards Agency and a number of government departments and other corporations.

The team consists of academics and civil servants led by Dr David Halpern. "Halpern identified the origins of what is now BIT in "deregulatory thrust", in part linked to the Better Regulation Executive. He understands the team's role as raising awareness of "less cognitive, less familiar approaches" as alternatives to legislation, pricing mechanisms and advertising and social marketing".[4]
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The Independent reports that the unit "draws inspiration from the Chicago University professor Richard Thaler and his colleague Cass Sunstein, both form the University of Chicago, whose book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness is required reading for Conservative front-benchers" [5] Richard Thaler is an unpaid adviser to the Behavioural Insights Team. [6]

The projects undertaken by the group will not involve regulation but will promote individual choices and working with corporate and other private sector partners. [7] "Nudging" individuals towards healthier choices is regarded by the current UK coalition government, and its predecessor, as a cost effective and corporate friendly alternative to regulation. This ignores the social determinants of health and reduces the problem to individuals rather than to structural inequalities in income, material wealth, educational attainment.

Projects that Underpin the approach

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The team published a discussion paper that sets out where opportunities for applying behavioural insights to public health. Examples of case studies that use nudging techniques are provided alongside examples of the team's work. The case studies used demonstrate the importance of working with corporate partners, targeting individuals and using social norms marketing techniques in the application of the behavioural insights. The report provides a mixture of areas where the team is working and of examples, mainly from America, where this approach has the potential to work.

  • Reducing alcohol related harm, the work of the team is strongly influenced by social norms theories and use evidence from America to support this approach. This approach has been used on many US college campuses and is being piloted in various UK projects. Social Norms approaches are heavily funded and favoured by the alcohol Industry (See National Social Norms Institute). The Welsh Assembly and the Drinkaware Trust are working together to deliver Social Norms pilots across Welsh campuses.[8]
  • Promoting organ donation by using a system of 'promoted choice' where new applicants for driving licences and replacement licences will be asked to become organ donors in a bid to increase donor numbers. [9]
  • Smoking cessation will be encouraged in a pilot run by Boots and supported by the Behavioural Insights Team and the Department of Health will encourage smokers to make a commitment to stop smoking. Participants will be tested to see if they are smoke free and subsequently rewarded. [10]
  • Targeting obesity by encouraging individuals to make healthier choices is one of the key aims of the Behavioural Insights Team. The team have been inspired by research form the USA, where changing the design of trolleys was found to increase consumption of healthier foods without reducing retailers profits. The partnership between Asda and the Department of Health as a component of the Change4Life Campaign where social norms messages were placed in trolleys is regarded by the Behavioural Insights Team as a success and they plan to encourage others to trial similar methods. [11] It is unclear how the success of this scheme was determined, on many other measures Change4Life does not appear to have done much to promote public health.
  • Reducing childhood obesity and encouraging children to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables is another key aim of the team. The Behavioural Insights Team and the Department of Health have entered into a deal with Lazy Town an Icelandic children's television programme that the Cabinet Office regard as instrumental in a marginal decline in childhood obesity rates in Iceland since 1996. The programme asks children aged 4-7 and parents to enter into a contract where they agree to eat healthily, be more active and go to bed early. Lazy Town branding that called fruit and vegetables "sports candy" ,as they do in the show, led to a 22% increase in sales at one supermarket. [12]
  • Car labelling
  • Food hygiene
  • Charitable giving

The annual report 2010 and 2011

The annual report provides details of where the Behavioural Insights Team included their approach in government policy. Practical applications have not been as wide as was envisaged in the discussion paper considered above. Some of the claims contained within the annual report are worth further investigation.

Examples of how behavioural insights have been applied in 2010–11 [13]
  • Organ donation – introducing a ‘required choice’ for vehicle licence applicants from 31 July. It is estimated that this will more than double the percentage of people joining the organ donation register and bring an extra 1 million donors over the course of the Parliament.
  • Healthier food – salt in pre-prepared food is to be reduced by 15% on 2010 targets (or 1g per person a day compared with 2007 levels) as part of a voluntary agreement with industry. It is estimated that this will save around 4,500 lives a year.
  • Consumer empowerment – giving consumers access to data held about them in electronic format by firms. This programme, known as ‘mydata’, is likely to revolutionise the relationship between consumers and firms, overcoming a host of behavioural biases.
  • Tax – changing letters to explain that most people in their local area had already paid their taxes boosted repayment rates by around 15 percentage points. If rolled out nationally, this would free up collector resource capable of generating £30 million of extra revenue annually and would advance over £160 million of cash flow by around six weeks each year.
  • Environment – we have redesigned Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). From 2012, the EPCs will tell people how costly it will be to heat a home they are buying, and will help 1.4 million households to make their homes more energy efficient, saving them money in the process." [14]

The salt reduction target listed in the 2010-11 annual report is the same pledge that has already been made by members of Department of Health's Responsibility Deal Food Network, and many of those who adhered to the pledge had already agreed with the Food Standards Agency in 2008 that to these reductions would be in place by 2012. Furthermore, health campaigners claim that the target of a 1g reduction per person per day is inadequate and a 6g reduction is needed to improve public health. [15] A voluntary agreement between industry and government to slightly reduce salt levels in food in 2008 is being regarded as a new success for both the Behavioural Insights Team and Responsibility Deal Food Network.

The claim from the Behavioural Insights Team that changing the wording of tax collection letters improved payment rates is difficult to uphold. Several other changes were implemented at the same time and no research was undertaken to establish the effectiveness of the wording change. The House of Lords select committee on Science and Technology found that there was not enough evidence to support claim on the effectiveness of behavioural insights in this instance. [16]

The government 'mydata' project was launched in April 2011. It aims to provide consumers with more information about their spending habits and behaviour by encouraging companies to release data such as credit card spending, energy and phone usage, or information gathered from the use of loyalty cards, to third parties. These third parties will then analyse and present the data according to the government:

"The applications of ‘mydata’ are potentially limitless. They might enable you to identify which of the 12 million mobile phone contracts is the best for you (based on your past 12 months usage); to understand what the average fat content of the food you purchase from supermarkets is; or to find out whether there might be better ways of saving your money or using your credit and debit cards. By helping you access your own data we believe a market in useful apps and websites will be stimulated – able to analyse your data for you, to make choosing the best deal easier. Richer information for important choices" [17] the same report gives us an idea of what this data might look like to the consumer:


‘mydata’ and what it might mean in practice[18]

The government has enlisted "over 20 leading businesses" to the scheme,although they have not named 20 participants yet. In March 2011 a round-table meeting was held at No.10 Downing Street where those businesses committed to delivering 'mydata' gathered to discuss the scheme. [19] Those signed up include: Barclaycard, Mastercard, HSBC, RBS Group, Lloyds TSB, John Lewis Partnership, Groupe Aeroplan (Nectar), Home Retail Group, Centrica, Southern and Scottish Energy, Everything Everywhere (T-Mobile/Orange) and Google.[20]

Such personal information is already stored by companies but providing it to third parties in order for the data to be analysed and presented in the way the government envisage is fraught with security risks. There is also the issue of ownership of the data which is not clear. Rather than assist individuals in their purchasing and consumption choices the project appears to be a huge market research exercise.

People

Gus O'Donnell | Oliver Letwin | Henry Ashworth | David Halpern | Richard Thaler

Academic Advisory Board

Professor Nick Chater (University of Warwick), Professor Peter John (UCL), Professor Theresa Marteau (University of Cambridge), Professor Peter Tufano (University of Oxford), Dr Dan Goldstein (London Business School)

References

  1. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights accessed 21st September 2011
  2. House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Publications CHAPTER 5: THE GOVERNMENT APPROACH TO CHANGING BEHAVIOUR accessed 21st September 2011
  3. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights accessed 21st September 2011
  4. House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Publications CHAPTER 5: THE GOVERNMENT APPROACH TO CHANGING BEHAVIOUR accessed 21st September 2011
  5. Martin Hickman 3rd January 2011, The Independent Nudge, nudge, wink wink... How the Government wants to change the way we think accessed 21st September 2011
  6. Cabinet Office, Behavioural Insights Team Applying Behavioural Insights to Health accessed 20th September
  7. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights accessed 21st September 2011
  8. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights to Health accessed 21st September 2011
  9. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights to Health accessed 21st September 2011
  10. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights to Health accessed 21st September 2011
  11. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights to Health accessed 21st September 2011
  12. Cabinet Office Applying Behavioural Insights to Health accessed 21st September 2011
  13. Cabinet Office, Behavioural Insights Team annual update 2010-11 accessed 21st September 2011
  14. Cabinet Office, Behavioural Insights Team annual update 2010-11 accessed 21st September 2011
  15. Sustain The Irresponsibility Deal Why the Government’s Responsibility Deal is better for the food industry than public health accessed 12th September 2011
  16. House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Publications CHAPTER 5: THE GOVERNMENT APPROACH TO CHANGING BEHAVIOUR accessed 21st September 2011
  17. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Better Choices: Better Deals Consumers Powering Growth accessed 28th September 2011
  18. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Better Choices: Better Deals Consumers Powering Growth accessed 28th September 2011
  19. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Better Choices: Better Deals Consumers Powering Growth accessed 28th September 2011
  20. Department for Business, Innovation and Skills Better Choices: Better Deals Consumers Powering Growth accessed 28th September 2011