Behavioural Insights Team

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Behavioural Insights Team
TypeSocial purpose company
PredecessorCabinet Office: Behavioural Insights Team
Founded2010 in London, United Kingdom
United Kingdom
Area served
Number of employees
100 – 500

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), also known unofficially as the "Nudge Unit", is a social purpose organisation that generates and applies behavioural insights, officially to inform policy and improve public services. Following nudge theory, using social engineering, techniques in psychology and marketing, the purpose of the organisation is to influence public thinking and decision making. This is to improve compliance with government policy to thereby decrease social and government costs related to inaction and poor compliance with policy and regulation.

Originally set up within the UK Cabinet Office to apply nudge theory within British government, BIT became a social purpose limited company in 2014.[1] Its work now spans across seven offices, having run more than 750 projects in and conducted over 500 randomised controlled trial (RCTs). The Behavioural Insights Team is headed by psychologist David Halpern.

BIT works in partnership with governments, local authorities, non-profits, and private organisations to tackle major policy problems. The OECD [2] notes that 202 institutions globally have applied behavioural insights to public policy. Many of these firms have established their own behavioural insight teams to research the field of behavioural economics.


BIT was set up in 2010 by the coalition government in a probationary fashion.[1][3] In April 2013 it was announced that it would be partially privatised as a mutual joint venture.[4]


On 5 February 2014 its ownership was split equally between the government, the charity Nesta, and the team's employees,[5] with Nesta providing £1.9 million in financing and services.[6] reported that it was "the first time the government has privatised civil servants responsible for policy decisions".[6] The Financial Times expected it "to be the first of many policy teams to be spun off as part of plans to shrink central government and create a private enterprise culture in Whitehall".[6]

The mission of the organisation is to inform policy and improve public services for citizens and society. In reporting achievements, annual update reports are published highlighting key areas of focus addressed.[7]

UK government departments that had previously received policy advice for free now pay for the service, as the cost of maintaining the team is no longer borne by government.


Although specific ideas devised by BIT have been imitated in several other countries (see below), David Halpern said in an interview with Apolitical [8] that the unit's underlying methodology has still not been widely understood.[9] He said BIT's 'greatest legacy' would be not any individual behavioural insight, but its commitment to creating a set of variants on any given intervention and testing them against each other. He called the cycle of making variants, testing them, learning what works best and starting again from there "radical incrementalism".

BIT follows a basic, linear process combining fieldwork and behavioural science literature in approaching projects. This four-step methodology involves defining the outcome, understanding the context, building the intervention and finishing by testing, learning and adapting. In testing, BIT heavily uses randomised control trials to increase the evidence base and take an empirical approach to government.[10]


Drawing the attention of those who fail to pay Vehicle Excise Duty[edit]

In Great Britain, unlicensed vehicles were a large social problem costing £40m in lost revenue. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency's (DVLA) responsibility for sending notification letters were deemed inefficient in prompting community response. BIT sought to partner with DVLA with a purpose of testing the notification letter with more simple, clear messages to better prompt a behavioural response in individuals. BIT trialled the addition of the new letter stating "Pay Your Tax or Lose Your [Make of Vehicle]" in addition to a picture of the offending vehicle. The letters sent to non-payers of Vehicle Excise Duty led to an increase in payment rates from 40% to 42% with the new letter alone and a further increase to 49% with the new letter and image included.[11] A greater level of personalisation is what caused a behavioural response.

Using social norms to increase tax payments[edit]

In the UK, BIT tested the impact of tax payment reminders with carefully constructed messages to cue individuals to make tax payments. BIT partnered with Her Majesty's Revenue and Customers (HMRC) to assess the effectiveness of norm-based and public good statements in prompting taxpayers to pay on time. The norm-based statements gave statistics showing the timeliness of conscientious individuals paying their tax on time and that the individual was not part of this group as they had failed to pay on time. Additionally, the public good statements illustrated the beneficial public services the individual would have access to if taxes were paid on time and the poor social outcomes that could happen if the individual did not pay tax on time.

The outcomes of the trials indicated an increase in likelihood of individuals paying tax on time, with the norm-based statements increasing total taxes paid within 23 days by more than £1.6 million.[12]

Increasing fine payment rates through text messages[edit]

BIT prompted those owing the UK Courts Service fines with a text message ten days before the bailiffs were to be sent to a person, which doubled payments made without the need for further intervention. This innovation has reportedly saved the Courts Service £30 million a year by "sending people owing fines personalised text messages to persuade them to pay promptly".

Similarly, the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) conducted a trial with the Australian Government Department of Human Services on timely reminders to report on time. Individuals on welfare payments for job seekers and students are required to report their income every fortnight before the payment is made. This is essential for the accuracy of payments. Over 80,000 individuals are late for reporting every fortnight which can result in the cancellation of payments.[13]

BETA designed three different SMS reminders to be sent the day before reporting was due. The SMS messages included a short reminder, a cost-emphasising reminder and a benefits-emphasising reminder. The findings illustrate that any SMS option increased the number of individuals reporting by 13.5% at a faster rate than ones who did not receive a text. This further led to 1.7% in fewer payment cancellations.[14]

Increasing tax collection rates by changing the default web-link[edit]

BIT ran a series of trials with HMRC that sought to improve tax collection rates by making it easier for individuals to pay. One of the simplest interventions involved testing the impact of directing letter recipients straight to the specific form they were required to complete, as opposed to the web page that included the form. This increased response rates by 19 to 23%.[11]

Reducing medical prescription errors[edit]

Medication errors has been a prevalent issue amongst global healthcare systems for over two decades, with errors starting at the prescription level. Inpatient and outpatient preventable medication errors amount to $20.6 billion US dollars per annum, affecting 7.1 million patients.[15] The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services illustrated that medication errors were primarily focused on the nurses responsible for administering medication, as dosing errors amounted to 37% of all preventable medication errors.

The BIT funded a study conducted by the Imperial College London which sought to reduce prescription errors by redesigning the prescription forms. Common prescription errors involved failure to distinguish between milligrams and micrograms, thus, the redesigned form had distinct unit options that had to be circled upon completion. Upon simulated testing, it was found that the redesigned form significantly improved medication dosage entries and other patient information.[16]

Giving a day's salary to charity[edit]

BIT ran a trial with Deutsche Bank to examine how to encourage people to donate part of their salaries to charity. The control group received generic emails and leaflets encouraging people to participate. This approach was tested against a range of new interventions, including offering people sweets branded with a charitable giving message; and making the email more personalized. They were found to be highly effective and cheap ways of increasing uptake and showed an even greater impact when they were combined.[11]

Increasing response rates of doctors by attracting the attention of a specific group[edit]

BIT ran a trial with HMRC to test the effectiveness of different letters aimed at encouraging doctors to pay any outstanding tax liabilities. In November 2011, around 3,000 doctors were sent one of four different types of letters. One group received a generic HMRC letter. The second group received letters in the style that HMRC might usually send to a specific group, emphasizing that it was a campaign focused on doctors. The third was a short and simple letter suggesting in direct tone that failure to come forward was previously treated as an oversight, but would now be treated as an active choice by the recipient. The fourth was identical but contained an additional moral message (which pointed out that a recent poll showed that most people trust their doctor to tell the truth). Emphasizing that the letters were targeting a particular group through a specific campaign had a considerable impact, raising response rates by more than five times. Simplifying the message also had a strong effect above and beyond the focus on the specific group.[11]

Using a clear call to action stamp to improve payment rates of fines[edit]

BIT ran experimental trials with Australia's New South Wales' Department of Premier and Cabinet and Office of State Revenue to improve payment rates for fines, debts, and taxes.

A number of fines trials involved testing the use of a "stamp" to provide a clear call to action for recipients. One of these trials involved "Enforcement Orders", which are issued to those people who have failed to respond to a Penalty Notice and Penalty Reminder Notice for fines ranging from traffic and parking infringements to civil disorder offenses. A red "Pay Now" stamp was printed in a prominent position on letters in the trial group, alongside a number of other changes that made the messaging more salient. In a sample size of 48,445 letters, there was a 3.1 percentage point increase in payment rates in the trial letters compared to the standard notice. When rolled out to scale, this translates to AUD$1.02 million in additional payments for the NSW government, as well as 8,800 fewer vehicle suspensions, which has wider socioeconomic benefits for the community.[11]

Using a lottery to increase electoral participation rates[edit]

In the UK, an individual must be registered in advance to vote and individuals who are not registered are subject to door-to-door canvass. Due to this costly process, there is incentive to look for more cost-effective ways to register individuals to vote.

BIT conducted a randomised controlled trial with a local authority to test the efficacy of using lotteries to increase electoral registration rates. Individuals were offered no lottery, and a £1,000 prize or £5,000 prize if registered before certain dates. The findings illustrated a 3.3% increase in registration rates when the prize was £1,000, and a 4.2% increase when the prize was £5,000.[17] Consistent with prospect theory, BIT found the cost-effectiveness of prize draws increasing registration rates as opposed to traditional approaches such as door-knocking.

Encouraging charitable giving in wills[edit]

BIT partnered with Co-operative Legal Services to test whether social norm messages in telephone scripts could be used to encourage people to donate more to charity in their wills. When customers booked a will-writing appointment, they were randomly assigned to a will-writer, who would write their will with them over the phone.

The control group of customers was asked if they would like to donate money to charity in their wills, asked the simple question "Would you like to leave any money to charity in your will?" (we call this the "Just Ask" condition), or told, "Many of our customers like to leave money to charity in their will". They were then asked "are there any causes you're passionate about?" (called the "Social Passion Ask" condition). In the "Just Ask" group, 10% of customers chose to leave a gift to charity in their wills. But in the "Social Passion Ask" group, donation rates rose threefold to 15%, and, unlike the "Just Ask" group, the average donation doubled. Furthermore, the average size of the donation among people in the "Social Passion Ask" group was twice as large (£6,661) than those in the control (£3,300) or "Just Ask" group (£3,110).[11]

Encouraging people to join the organ donor register using reciprocity[edit]

In 2013 BIT collaborated with the Department of Health, the National Health Service, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and the Government Digital Service to increase organ donation.

When people renew their car tax online, they receive a message asking if they want to join the organ donor register. For one month, eight different messages were introduced to encourage sign up, and visitors were randomly allocated to each. Since over 1 million people visited the site during the month, this represented one of the largest randomised controlled trials in the public sector. The most successful variant asked "If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others'", which has been estimated to add around 100,000 extra organ donors per year relative to the control.[11]

Personal commitment devices in Jobcentres[edit]

BIT is working with Jobcenters in a trial involving cutting down the process, personalizing job advice and includes the introduction of commitment devices, which require the jobseeker to make commitments to the job advisor about what they are going to do in the next week. They write their commitments down in front of the job advisor, who then follows up whether they were successful. The job seekers are encouraged to make the commitments unambiguous by specifying when and where they are going to perform the action. The early results from the trial has showed a significant increase in those off benefits at 13 weeks. The trial will be published in 2014.[11][needs update]

Increasing loft insulation installation[edit]

Although loft insulation is essentially a zero-risk proposition, there were very few people installing it. The team discovered that people's lofts were full of junk, and provided low-cost labor to clear them; this caused a fivefold increase in the proportion of installed insulation.[3]

In June 2012, they published a policy paper on the use of randomised controlled trials in collaboration with Ben Goldacre.[18]

Benefit Sanctions for Disabled People[edit]

Tasked by the Department of Work and Pensions to investigate the effectiveness of "sanctioning" recipients of disability benefits (punishing them with fines of up to three years ineligibility to benefits for supposed bad attitudes or non-compliance), the nudge unit noted that these methods were ineffective, but rather than recommending they be withdrawn, proposed changes which might make sanctions and benefit conditionality more effective.[19][citation needed]

International adoption[edit]

United States[edit]

BIT has expanded to the United States setting up an office in New York. The North American operation is working with cities and their agencies, as well as other partners, across the United States and Canada, running over 25 randomized controlled trials in the first year of operation.

The model has been followed in the United States. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has a "Social and Behavioral Sciences Initiative", whose goal is "to translate academic research findings into improvements in federal program performance and efficiency using rigorous evaluation methods".[20] On 15 September 2015 President Obama issued an Executive Order which formally established the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and directed government agencies to use insights from the social and behavioral sciences to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of their work.[21]

Oceania and Southeast Asia[edit]

BIT’s expansion into Australia started at a state-level followed by the setup of teams on a sub-national level.[22] In 2012, BIT Australia worked with the New South Wales government, whose Department of Premier and Cabinet boasts a Behavioural Insights Unit (BIU) [23] which provided policy advice and support to NSW government agencies. In 2016 on a Federal Government level, the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet established a Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) to apply behavioural insights into public policy. Building behavioural insight capabilities into the Australian Public Service was a primary goal of the BETA team and since inception, over $25 million in direct government benefits was delivered annually across nearly 30 projects.[24] BETA had partnered with multiple Australian Government departments such as the Australian Communications and Media Authority, Australian Energy Regulator, Australian Taxation Office, Department of the Environment and Energy and Appliances Online, Department of Health and the Department of Social Services. Formal research proposals and findings are published upon completion of each project.

BETA established an ethical framework for behavioural insights and partnered with the New Zealand Ministry for Social Development to assess the effectiveness of the framework in New Zealand. As at 2018, the presence of public-level behavioural insight was minimal as the Ministry for the Environment and Ministry of Justice had established smaller behavioural insights groups on a volunteer level.[25]

In 2021, BIT partnered with Singaporean government agencies and multiple government ministries with a focus on improving social policy in consideration to empiricism and social impact. Involvement with the Ministry of Manpower, Public Services Division of the Prime Minister’s Office, and Ministry of Home Affairs was impactful and internal behavioural insights teams have been established within them in the recent years.[26]

The ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership has expressed consideration for establishing a centralised behavioural economics team for the region as a modest investment which can deliver measurable benefits for ASEAN communities.[27]


  1. ^ a b "Behavioural Insights Team".
  2. ^ OECD. "Behavioural insights". OECD Better Policies for Better Lives. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  3. ^ a b Bell, Chris (11 February 2013). "Inside the Coalition's controversial 'Nudge Unit'".
  4. ^ "Government launches competition to find a commercial partner for the Behavioural Insights Team".
  5. ^ "'Nudge unit' sold off to charity and employees". BBC News. 5 February 2014.
  6. ^ a b c Plimmer, Gill (5 February 2014). "UK Cabinet Office 'nudge' team to be spun off into private group". Financial Times.
  7. ^ "About Us". Behavioural Insights Team. Behavioural Insights Team. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  8. ^ "Apolitical Home Page| Apolitical". Apolitical. Retrieved 21 August 2020.
  9. ^ "The UK's 'nudge unit' is saving lives by steering citizens' choices | Apolitical". Apolitical. Retrieved 23 April 2018.
  10. ^ "CAN 'NUDGING' CHANGE BEHAVIOUR? USING 'BEHAVIOURAL INSIGHTS' TO IMPROVE PROGRAM REDESIGN" (PDF). The Australian National University, Canberra. ANU Press. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  11. ^ a b c d e f g h
  12. ^ "THE BEHAVIORALIST AS TAX COLLECTOR: USING NATURAL FIELD EXPERIMENTS TO ENHANCE TAX COMPLIANCE" (PDF). National Bureau of Economic Research. National Bureau of Economic Research. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  13. ^ "Effective use of SMS: timely reminders to report on time" (PDF). Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government. Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  14. ^ "Effective use of SMS: timely reminders to report on time" (PDF). Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government. Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  15. ^ "Preventing Medication Errors: A $21 Billion Opportunity" (PDF). Network for Excellence in Health Innovation. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  16. ^ "EAST Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights" (PDF). Behavioural Insights Team. Behavioural Insights Team. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  17. ^ "EAST Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights" (PDF). The Behavioural Insights Team. The Behavioural Insights Team. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  18. ^ "Test, Learn, Adapt: Developing Public Policy with Randomised Controlled Trials".
  19. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 13 June 2018. Retrieved 13 June 2018.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  20. ^ "Dr Maya Shankar". Behavioural Exchange 2014. Retrieved 19 October 2014. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  21. ^ "Executive Order Formally Establishes US 'Nudge Unit'". 16 September 2015.
  22. ^ ""Nudge units" – where they came from and what they can do". World Bank. ZEINA AFIF. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  23. ^ "Behavioural Insights". New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet. Retrieved 19 October 2014. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  24. ^ "BETA; Who We Are". BETA. Australian Government Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  25. ^ "Behavioural Insights Community of Practice" (PDF). Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet NZ. Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet NZ. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  26. ^ "Singapore". The Behavioural Insights Team. The Behavioural Insights Team. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)
  27. ^ "Nudging the ASEAN way: considering a new behavioural economics unit in South East Asia". ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership. ASEAN-Australia Strategic Youth Partnership. Retrieved 2 November 2020. CS1 maint: discouraged parameter (link)

External links[edit]