Eight years


November 28, 2018 Owain Service

After eight fantastic years, I will be moving on from the Behavioural Insights Team to embark on six months of parental leave with my young son and daughter. My last day will be this Friday.

So I thought I’d take the opportunity to write about the last eight years with the team. What has changed. And where the field of behavioural insights is going.

Our CEO David Halpern and I often reflect on the fact that it’s easy, in hindsight, to assume that it was inevitable that behavioural insights would take hold as a concept that would support government policy.

But if behavioural science teaches us anything, it’s that everything seems obvious in hindsight.

So it’s easy to forget how much scepticism there was about the creation of BIT in its earliest days. We were a small unit, established in No.10 and the Cabinet Office, with a remit to ‘nudge’ the citizens of the UK. As Ben Goldacre wrote on his Bad Science blog in 2011: “So here is my fantasy. We sack the Behavioural Insights Team – all they’ll do is over-extrapolate from behavioural economics research.”

Ben was unaware that alongside the strives we were making to embed behavioural science in policymaking, we were also putting in place new methodologies for trialling policy interventions. So that we could find out how effective (or not) they might be in practice.

These early trials, which you can read more about in Inside the Nudge Unit, did two things. They started to show that often small changes (a single line in a letter; a text message prompt) could have tangible effects. But they also showed how it was possible to radically change the way that policy could be made – with a focus on testing an idea, and being willing and able to conclude that it did or didn’t work.

Policymakers from across government started to take note and get in touch with us to discuss interesting projects they were working on. Governments from around the world began to wonder if they could set up teams of their own. Even Ben Goldacre followed up his early critique by observing that “It’s odd, but the first good trials in UK politics for many years may be about to come from the wackiest and most vogueish corner of government.”

In short, while we were focusing on encouraging behavioural change of citizens, we’d also been embarking on a programme which had been changing the behaviours of policymakers.

So when I look back on my time at the Behavioural Insights Team, this is what I think all of us who have been involved in the practical application of behavioural science can be proudest of. That we’ve encouraged a change in the approach that we take to policymaking. Behaviour change in the application of behavioural science.

That’s why there are now hundreds of behavioural science teams in international organisations, central governments, and local authorities around the world – including in almost every UK government department.

But despite this change, we should also recognise that we’re still in the foothills of the application of behavioural science to policy. And we can and should be thinking about how we can scale the impact of our efforts going forward. Through more concerted efforts to spread ideas that have been shown to work. Through new tools and techniques, like our growing range of online BI platforms. And of course by continuing to test new ideas.

I’m incredibly proud of everything the team’s done since 2010. And am looking forward to seeing everything BIT continues to pioneer in the future.

All that’s left to say is a huge thank you to the team, which has grown from just seven people in London to one hundred and eighty in offices around the world, for their fantastic efforts down the years.  And to say see you at Behavioural Exchange 2019 next September!


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