In brief: Nudge for local government

You may have heard of behavioural economics or 'nudge' theory. What does it mean for local government?

Nudge theory refers to using principles of behavioural economics to enhance communications or processes in ways that make people more likely to take the action you are aiming for, without forcing people into compliance.

Nudges grew in popularity after the financial crash of 2007-08 because they presented a low-cost option in a time when public finances were squeezed. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic renewed interest in nudges as policymakers relied on behavioural science to improve compliance and adjustment to new measures – see our briefing on Covid-19 nudges for more.

However, before considering changing people’s behaviour, it’s also important to first understand why they might be behaving as they are. Sometimes our own processes could be standing in the way and public services could be unwittingly contributing to behaviours they want to change.

Last week, in the full subscription-only bulletin our featured article introduces how local governments can take steps to use behavioural insights, while a two-part series delves deeper into behavioural science followed by an exemplary case study on cycling. For inspiration, we loved how Boston 'gamified' safe driving to reduce injuries.

Loose change: using behavioural insights to influence outcomes

Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

How can councils put behaviour change to use? There’s no need to employ the services of an external company or spend thousands on research. Much of what you need to know will already be accessible and, if not, choosing services with large numbers of customers to trial different approaches can yield valuable insight. Simply taking the time to think about what assumptions you might unconsciously be making (usually that people will behave rationally and make a logical choice!) can help to refine your approach and improve your outcomes.

One framework commonly used to help develop successful behaviour change campaigns is EAST. Interventions should make the desired behaviour Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. So how can we apply the framework? Our subscription only Global Local Bulletin highlights key lessons and links to this briefing.

More featured LGIU briefings from our archive

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Innovation and inspiration

USA: Boston launches ‘safest driver’ contest
In 2016, the City of Boston piloted a competition designed to reduce traffic fatalities and injuries with a ‘Safest Driver’ competition, nudging Bostonians to change their behaviour behind the wheel. The 2019 round of the contest drew an estimated 2,000 participants across 105 towns and neighbourhoods in Metro Boston. Drivers were scored across five metrics (speed, braking, cornering, acceleration and cell phone distraction) through a smartphone app. Residents, metro drivers and companies were all recognised across the competition. Among participants, risky behaviours dropped significantly. Phone distraction dropped by 48%, while speeding dropped by 38%.
City of Boston

Find more inspiration in the full Global Local Bulletin

Policy and Resources

Report: Behavioral Insights for Cities
This report from What Works Cities outlines the findings and lessons from reviewing 25 behavioural insights projects in municipalities across the USA. The report also looks to the future, exploring how behavioural insights could continue to improve local government services.

Guide: RESPONSE: A behavioural insights checklist for designing effective communications
This practitioners’ playbook from the Local Government Association (UK) provides guidance in the form of a checklist for public sector organisations on how to design, develop, and test behaviourally informed communications. It includes tips, techniques, and global case studies.

Case study: Applying Behavioural Insights in Victoria
This recent report from the Victorian State Government outlines how various behavioural insights and ‘nudge’ projects are currently working in Victoria, Australia. It provides examples of the type of projects available to subnational governments and includes lessons on what is and isn’t working. Their website also provides a useful list of easily digestible case studies of initiatives.

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