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Thursday, 5 December 2013

What can behavioural research teach us about transforming government?

By Andrew Galley

The Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto's recent paper, Public Service Transformed: Harnessing the Power of Behavioural Insights, outlines some simple steps to increasing the effectiveness of the public service in four key areas: collaboration, transparency, innovation and a focus on results.

Three things to know about behavioural insights and public sector reform:
  1. All the structures and processes we face, whether in life or at work, make certain choices easy and others hard. By understanding both the way people think and how the choices presented to them make a difference in how they act, it is possible to present choices in such a way as to guide human behaviour.
  2. Governments around the world are using these insights to drive change in citizen behaviour. For example, because people have a natural tendency to take the path of least resistance, changing the default option on retirement contributions to 'opt-out' drives up enrollment rates.
  3. By turning this lens inward on the public sector workforce, governments can simply and effectively create a more dynamic and creative work environment for public servants.

Three myths about behavioural insights and public sector reform:

Myth #1: Public sector reform must be expensive, since deep structural changes are required.

The Reality: Sometimes, positive change can come simply from thinking carefully about how choices are presented to public servants in their work environment. Efficiencies can flow from simple and inexpensive changes in that process.

Myth #2: Increasing efficiency and effectiveness in the public sector requires down-sizing.

The Reality: Public service reform should recognize that public servants are key assets and use behavioural insights to maximize their contributions and effectiveness.

Myth #3: Behavioural insights are manipulative and rob people of their freedom of action.

The Reality: Existing work cultures already shape how public servants behave. Behavioural insights are simply intended to encourage people to behave differently, in ways that reinforce a positive work environment. 

Andrew Galley is a co-author of the Public Service Transformed: Harnessing the Power of Behavioural Insights report and a Policy Associate at the Mowat Centre at the University of Toronto.


  1. Very interesting concept - using behavioural research to change the public service. I see many parallels to my own work. In the field of traffic safety our number one challenge is changing behaviours - planning ahead before drinking, wearing a seat belt, not answering the cell phone, etc. Often, legislative solutions aren't the best or most acceptable tools so rather than enforcing compliance, we look to education and persuasion to effect change. It would be interesting to hear others' thoughts on how this could work internally given some of the challenges the public service is facing.

  2. The real authority on this is Cass his "Nudge" and many other of his recent books (they do tend to be a little repetitive).