Tuesday, 7 Jun 2022  |  Reading time:  12 mins  | Read online

Behavioural 'Nudging'

You may have heard of how behavioural theory can 'nudge' populations, but how are local governments utilising these insights and techniques?

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. It differs from more traditional methods of trying to change behaviour through awareness-raising, legislation or financial incentives/disincentives, which may be ineffective or infeasible for local governments. 

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.

The foundation for nudges rests on humans being prone to cognitive biases, such as prioritising the present over the future, being over-optimistic or over-confident, paying too much attention to the first thing we see, and many more. By being aware of these biases, policymakers can either counter or utilise them to help people understand information and make ‘better’ choices.

However, before considering changing people’s behaviour, it’s also important to first understand why they might be behaving as they are. For example, when recruiting more foster carers it would be tempting to suggest an awareness campaign. However, if the actual problem is that lengthy waits for an assessment are causing people to drop out before qualifying, then it is actually the process that needs changing. Public services could be unwittingly contributing to behaviours they want to change.

This week, 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.

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This week's featured content

Loose change: using behavioural insights to influence outcomes

By Ruth Fry, LGIU Associate

So 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?

1. Easy

A preferred action can be made easier by making it clearly understandable and simple to execute. Goals that appear difficult or long-term can be repackaged to make them feel more achievable. One way to do this is ‘chunking’: cutting complex actions down into smaller chunks. ‘Stoptober’ is an example of the difficult long-term goal of stopping smoking being chunked down into the more achievable goal of quitting for a month. Once people have managed a month, it’s more likely they will stop smoking altogether or cut down in future – the important thing is to at least get them started on that journey.

An even easier way to get people to change is to set up the system so that they don’t need to actively do anything at all. People, given free rein, take the path of least resistance. So changing pensions and organ donor registers to being ‘opt-out’ instead of ‘opt-in’ is a simple way to harness the power of the default: most people won’t bother to opt out, because it requires them to take action.

Want to read the rest of the EAST framework letter tips?

LGIU Global Local Highlights


Creating more effective policy through a greater awareness of behavioural economics
Public policy should be simple to understand and follow, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy to get right. This briefing introduces the reader to the basic concepts of behavioural science, their relevance to public policy, and why policy designers need to be thinking about these concepts to be successful. Click here to read this briefing.

The role for behavioural science in strengthening public policy: A cycling case study
The second in a two-part series looking at the concept of behavioural science and its relevance to public policy, this briefing unpacks a few of the more common heuristics and biases that people regularly encounter, and applies them to a case study that looks at cycling uptake. Click here to read this briefing.

Veg out: why 5 A Day hasn’t worked
The UK's long-running '5 A Day' campaign, launched following advice from the World Health Organisation, has failed to improve people’s eating habits, and how barriers to change could be removed. It is likely to be useful to those with an interest in public health or behaviour change. Click here to read this briefing.

Innovation & Inspiration

Curated case studies and news from around the globe


COSTA RICA: Peer comparison nudges help reduce water consumption
In 2019, the Municipality of Belén, Costa Rica used social proof to curb water consumption. The municipality mailed postcards to households comparing their water consumption with their neighbours. Sent alongside their water bills, the postcards were labelled with brightly coloured stickers, either smiling for residents with below average water consumption or frowning for those consuming more than their average neighbour. These postcards, which only cost $0.10 on average per household, also provided tips on how residents could reduce their water usage. The nudge saw consumption fall by between 3.5% and 5.6% for residents who received the social proof postcard compared to those who received standard bills.

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

JAPAN: Nudge theory deployed to save national park toilets
Toilets at Oze National Park in Japan are in danger of closure due to a lack of donations from visitors for their upkeep. To address this, the Oze Preservation Foundation launched a project where posters of a child staring accompanied the plea for donations outside the toilets, as human eyes are thought to encourage people to respect rules. The average donation per user rose from ¥25 to ¥35 – a 40% increase. ‘Gamifying’ donations was also attempted, by asking people to vote for their favourite photo with their donation money, however that proved less effective than the eyes method.
Japan Times

UK: Health service reduces no-shows by highlighting cost 
In the UK, health services are nationalised and appointments are free, but due to lack of penalty for not attending appointments there is no loss to a person to cancel. To address this, the NHS began texting patients to remind them to attend along with a personalised figure for the exact cost to the health service of the appointment should they miss it. The result was an estimated saving of £4.5 million per annum. Behaviourally, this ties into framing loss aversion – people can respond more powerfully to losses than gains.
Response (LGA)

Policy & 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.

Thanks for reading!

Next week, we'll be celebrating Pride Month with an edition on LGBTQIA+ services and event organisation.

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