External ContentHow Can We Use Behavioural Insights to Engage People?

How Can We Use Behavioural Insights to Engage People?

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External Content
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This article was written by Emma Sisk for Apolitical, the global learning platform for government. It was originally published here in August 2020. We’re featuring the article with kind permission by Apolitical.

majority of people across most OECD countries do not trust their government. In 2018, the organisation went so far as to call out what it saw as a public “trust crisis” in government.

And policymakers are dealing in the landscape of public trust every day, creating the rules and regulations that dictate their lives. So with this in mind, how can governments reinvigorate their relationship with their people?

One option is to apply behavioural insights — the process of deploying tested interventions, or “nudges”, to influence the choices people make — to civic engagement, the process of government interacting with its people.

But there’s a tension at the heart of this. Even though we give so much information away to tech companies, are we comfortable with governments taking and using our data to try to streamline services and nudge our civic behaviour?


Behavioural insights have been used in over 200 countries to generate low-cost interventions to improve outcomes and create efficiencies. Behavioural insights can be used by governments to steer human behaviour through nudges — simple tweaks that use the power of suggestion to influence people’s decisions — rather than new laws or taxes.

If you’re interested in learning the basics of behavioural insights, we have an introductory field guide on the topic here. Our partners on this field guide at ideas42 have also produced introductory materials on the topic here.

Civic engagement signifies the activities which involve interaction between the person and the state. We’re using “civic engagement” instead of “citizen engagement” in this field guide, because that includes people who aren’t citizens — such as refugees. Civic engagement initiatives often come from the top (the government) down (to the people).

If you’re interested in civic engagement as a concept, we’ve written a whole field guide on it — available here.

Civic engagement is different from civic participation. Civic participation encompasses wider forms of interaction between a person and the state. This could be contacting an elected representative, taking part in a public demonstration, or signing a petition. This often comes from the bottom up.

How Have Governments Engaged the Public Using Behavioural Insights?

Governments can use behavioural insights for good — and to build trust among the population. The UK, for example, set up a programme in 2011 called National Citizen Service (NCS), bringing together 300,000 teenagers from different social backgrounds for adventures, skills training and volunteering across a single summer. Mixing with others is a key element of the programme.

Their work has been informed by the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), who tweaked the course accordingly to follow behavioural insights methodology. One of the changes was to the programme’s introductory exercises — with some groups asked to talk about their similarities, others their differences, and another to talk about their strengths and weaknesses.

“There’s a political and philosophical debate to be had around nudges and whether they undermine people’s capacity to make decisions in the future”

Young people taking part in the programme often started from a low level of trust, with the average child responding that only between “rarely” and “sometimes” could people be trusted. But people who spent 10 minutes talking in their team about their similarities scored 20% higher on trust.

As well as these small onboarding tweaks, the programme, with support from the BIT, also trialled a “buddy scheme” pilot. The scheme allowed young people to “take a friend” with them, reducing the fear factor which can cause young people to drop out. It also connected participants via a digital buddying platform, Networky, so that children could chat online prior to the programme’s kick-off.

The programme and its nudges are making a difference. Independent research showed that NCS helps young people to build confidence and develop “soft” skills, like teamwork and leadership. The research also found that young people’s sense of well-being and their level of anxiety improved after the programme — and these positive effects persisted even two years later.

Despite the initial investment, the BIT also believes it represents a financial saving: for every £1 invested, between £2.20 and £4.15 is returned in individual and social benefits. But there’s still work to be done. The programme has come under fire by the UK’s National Audit Office for high costs and remaining barriers to participation.

What’s the Role of Tech in This Space?

Tech, when executed well and designed around behavioural insights thinking, can build momentum for people. One organisation trying to build trust to improve civic engagement is the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM), who designed an app, BOS:311, for residents to submit public service requests directly to the city government.

It was built because the city government had provided a 24-hour hotline for decades — but lots of people weren’t interested in using it.

On top of a responsive interface, in order to build trust and demonstrate that work was taking place, MONUM provided city residents with evidence that their report had been acted upon.

“The context in which people do nudging is really important to consider when you want to nudge”

In the app’s current version, once a case is closed, people can learn about the team who did the work — in some cases, seeing a photo of the team who completed it, or an image of the completed work, like removed graffiti.

In the months following a pictorial receipt of the treatment, residents submitted almost 20% more service requests, and did so across 9% more categories.

The app increased engagement among young, renter residents, whom city officials found harder to reach. Others are also copying Boston’s innovations; the app has now been replicated some 311 times across other cities in the US.

Can Behavioural Insights Help or Hinder Trust In Government?

Despite positive innovations like these, behavioural insights and civic engagement both straddle an interesting set of questions as we decide what shapes our relationship with government: how much do we trust government? How much should we trust it?

“There’s a political and philosophical debate to be had around nudges and whether they undermine people’s capacity to make decisions in the future,” said Jessica Pykett, senior lecturer in human geography at the University of Birmingham, who spoke to Apolitical about her research exploring the influence of behavioural science on public policy.

“Thinking about how nudges can play on people’s vulnerabilities or maybe increase people’s vulnerabilities is an important question to consider,” she said.

Beyond vulnerability, there’s a fear that over-nudging could have a reverse effect and lead to disengagement. “If you start treating people like Homer Simpson, they could all end up like Homer Simpson.” said Pykett.

But a 2018 study showed that if a country’s population trusted their government, the more likely they were to trust the nudge.

A pioneer in this space, Cass Sunstein, led the survey last year across five countries (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, South Korea, and the US) asking people whether they trusted nudging. Sunstein argued that close engagement with the public can be exceedingly important to the process of nudging. Simply, Sunstein writes, “the best way to obtain trust is to earn it.”

“The context in which people do nudging is therefore really important to consider when you want to nudge,” said Pykett, reflecting on Sunstein’s research.

So as policymakers get excited around the potential behind behavioural science — to improve policy outcomes and encourage behaviours — it’s important to heed Pykett’s warnings. Considering the context behind the nudge, and prioritising vulnerable people are just two ways to keep grounded when being creative with the policy process.

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