Improving Public Policy

Katie Chen (a Western undergraduate), Dilip Soman (of Rotman), and myself have published a whitepaper through BEAR at the University of Toronto. We discuss moves towards public policy based upon a more empirically valid approach to human behaviour. By which we mean policy that is based upon how people actually behave not how we think that people should behave.

Where people behave differently to protagonists in standard economic models the normal range of techniques to influence behaviour simply aren’t enough. A traditional approach based upon economic thinking might use 1) restrictions, 2) incentives, 3) or increased information. There is nothing wrong with any of these in the right circumstances but they often start from the wrong premise, and certainly don’t cover all situations. For example, a lot of people smoke despite having sufficient information to know it makes them sick, high taxes that provide an incentive to stop, and bans on smoking in many public places. (Of course bans can always be made more extreme to try and make the ban more effective but total prohibitions don’t have a great track record of success).

We suggest a more nuanced view of public policy. “Effective policy designs should start with the assumption that people will likely forget, ignore, gloss over, or misunderstand critical pieces of information, and will act impulsively with minimal thought. These policy designs should build safeguards in the system against such behaviour.” (Chen, Bendle and Soman, 2017, page 8).

We describe how behavioural ideas are influencing policy from around the world. The range of countries is getting quite extensive. We share the Owain Service of the Behavioural Insights Team’s excellent map of units around the world and also note that Canada is becoming quite a hub for such work.

I am very positive about what is happening. Behavioural science can, and I believe will, help make public policy more efficient and more effective. “With better data and improved ability to test, behavioural insights will play an increased role in improving policy and services to ensure a better life for every global citizen.” (Chen, Bendle and Soman, 2017, page 20). If you provide services be it in business, government, or a not-for-profit designing the offering to appeal to how people actually think and behave seems like a great idea to me. Let us hope for more of it.

Read: Katie Chen, Neil Bendle and Dilip Soman (2017) Policy by Design The Dawn of Behaviourally-Informed Government, Behavioural Economics In Action at Rotman, download at