In partnership with

Behavioural Insights in Australia


November 26, 2017 David Halpern

In Everett Rogers’s classic text, The Diffusion of Innovations, he argues that it helps that good ideas are effective. But it’s often not quite enough. For innovations to really take hold, they need to have the capacity to be trialled and reinvented in different contexts. People need to be able to test, learn and adapt ideas to make them suit their needs and solve their own problems.

When Rory Gallagher first came to Sydney to set up the New South Wales (NSW) Government’s Behavioural Insights Unit in 2012, a key focus was to see whether these tools could have an effect outside of the specific political and cultural context of Westminster. Encouragingly the answer was yes. The results published alongside the first Behavioural Exchange conference demonstrated that the same ideas that got people to pay their fines, return to work and show up at hospital appointments worked as well in the Australian context as they did the UK.

In 2014, we set up our own team in Sydney with the aim of spreading the use of Behavioural Insights across the region. I’ve spent the last week in Sydney and have been able to see how BI has been taken into new and exciting directions in Australia. These are included in a local version of the Update Report, with a new foreword from one of our early champions, Professor Peter Shergold (the former Secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, now Chancellor of the University of Western Sydney).

Crucially, it’s not just been one way: our work with partners in Australia has directly informed the team’s work and policy in London and beyond. For example, the work we did with VicHealth and Alfred Health supported our thinking on how a sugar tax might work in the UK, while the deliberative forum on obesity was BIT’s first foray into democratic innovations. Similarly, several of the Australia team’s current projects are likely to be of wider interest – three are picked out below.

Encouraging people to work flexible

Our team in Australia have been working with the NSW Department of Premier & Cabinet’s Behavioural Insights Unit to encourage people to travel into work at off peak hours. We know that habitual behaviours like commuting can be hard to shift, but we also know from previous work (for example with Lendlease and the Movember Foundation, or with Whitehall Departments’ energy use) that leader boards can be a powerful way to change behaviour. So, data from the turnstiles in the building was used to create a leader board of teams that came into work outside of peak hours. The leader board was the centrepiece of a nine-week competition across the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet.

What was the impact of a simple competition? A 7 percentage point increase in the number of staff that came into work before or after peak hours. Importantly, people didn’t end up working longer or shorter hours and the result was still there several months after the competition ended.

Supporting the Ethical Development of Children

With the rapid growth of technology and social media, young people are finding new ways to socialise, learn and express themselves and are encountering new ethical challenges in the process. How we equip our children to overcome these challenges is a problem that the world over is facing. The team in Sydney have been working with the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation to promote teenagers’ ethical behaviour online. The work is at an early stage, but it’s really exciting to see how we can use BI in these new settings. Roll over Kohlberg.

Addressing Domestic Violence

The personal and societal costs of domestic violence are huge. Over the past 3 years, the Australian BIT team has been working with the NSW Behavioural Insights Unit to reduce domestic violence. The work started with the development of Plain English court forms that more clearly express what domestic violence offenders should and should not do. These have now been rolled out across NSW. The team are now working on an SMS intervention to encourage offenders to attend court and a very interesting structured court based intervention, using Implementation Intentions, to ensure that offenders stick to the conditions of their court orders.

With government units in NSW, Victoria and BETA in Canberra, and our own growing team here in Sydney, Australia can rightly claim to be in the top-tier of countries applying BI to public policy. Next week I’ll be heading to New Zealand to see how things are developing across the Tasman Sea.

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