Opportunities, Risks, and Common Challenges


This is a panel session on some of the common challenges in implementing behavioural insights and ways to overcome them. Session speakers include: 

Dr Thia Jang Ping, Director,Singapore Ministry of Finance

  • The potential general equilibrium effect of behavioural interventions isn’t always discussed in the literature. If everyone does it, what level of shifting will occur? It’s very difficult to generalise from small trials.
  • Nudges touch on value systems. Even if a concept appears to support a desired behaviour, and has been proven to be successful elsewhere, it won’t always be compatible with the value system of the prospective trial area. 

Professor Michael Hiscox, Harvard University

  • The biggest immediate obstacle is that a leader (an elected policy maker) says they know what works. In fact, they’ve often been elected or come to office because they convincingly say they know what works and they will do it immediately and at full scale. This is a big obstacle to saying that we need to test first.It is often very politically difficult to say that we’re not sure how to do this, let alone whether we should do this at full scale.
  • Another big obstacle is amongst the practitioners. Here, the typical understanding of evaluation is that it’s something done after a program or policy has been implemented, often retrospectively after some numbers of years. There are huge problems of attribution, in identifying a change in outcomes to a particular program. It’s very hard to tease out causality. 
  • The final obstacle to evaluating public policy is that it is very hard to talk to practitioners about evaluating their program or policy in a climate where their funding has been cut. 

Professor Peter Shergold AC, Chancellor, University of Western Sydney

  • A key problem of 21st century governance is that the citizens who are outraged at loss of government support are the same ones outraged about incursion of the state into their private lives (e.g. exercise, eating, and power usage). New approaches are need, and behavioural interventions form part of these new tools.
  • Citizens should help to co-design the programs they need. Not for profits should also be considered in the design of policy, not just delivery.  
  • Given half a chance, citizens want to contribute to public values. There is a great potential for behavioural interventions to tap into this.

Mr Nicholas Gruen, CEO, Lateral Economics

  • There is so much that’s great about the Nudge approach but it is worth saying that it’s nothing much more than applied common-sense. It is worth asking ourselves why it’s taken so long to have someone say that it would be nice to test things. Some of these things have been commonplace to people doing marketing since the 1920s. 
  • We are addicted to top-down: taking, strategizing and directing. Nudge talk is the same except that lots of people involved in these ideas are very amendable to actually trying to involve grassroots more. In a way, it is empowering the grassroots by letting them speaking in RCTs and other ways. 
  • One potential weakness for Nudge is that it’s another gloss on the lionisation of choice. For example, in superannuation, hanging on to choice at every stage may not be the best thing to do. It may be more appropriate to go directly for the goal. 
Facilitated by Mr Martin Stewart-Weeks