Six ways governments are ‘nudging’ citizens

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Key case studies from the developed and developing worlds.

Image: RunSocietyCC BY 2.0

Details matter. Tiny, incremental changes to citizens’ behaviour can add up over time to save governments, organisations and healthcare systems billions of dollars.

Put simply, behavioural science helps to ‘nudge’ citizens into making certain simple decisions, which eventually have a cumulative positive effect. This can mean paying taxes and showing up to hospital appointments on time, choosing healthier foods, or being kinder to the environment.

“The full potential of behavioural insights has yet to be tapped,” Peter Ong, Head of Civil Service Singapore, said at a recent behavioural insights conference. GovInsider has gathered six examples of governments already using this approach to make a difference.

1. Getting parents involved

In Indonesia, behavioural techniques are being used to increase parents’ involvement in schools. A 2011 survey had found that two-thirds of Indonesian schools made decisions without participation from parents or parent-teacher committees. The Indonesian government teamed up with the World Bank to test different ways to involve parents in decision-making in schools.

They found that text messages increased participation and in-kind donations, while brochures and letters did little to increase involvement or knowledge. School meetings, on the other hand, had the biggest impact, increasing parents’ knowledge of school funding by 55%. However, texts and meetings did not increase overall participation in fund decision-making.

2. How a hospital saved tens of thousands of dollars

An Australian hospital discovered that it could save over A$66,000 (~US$49,967) a year when patients turned up for their appointments on time. It boils down to something as simple as the content of an SMS reminder.

The hospital tried seven different SMS reminders, and found that one cut missed appointments by 19%, says Dr Alex King, Director of Behavioural Insights at the Department of Premier and Cabinet in the state of New South Wales. This message read: “If you attend, the hospital will not lose the $125 we lose when a patient does not show up.”

It told patients that “the cost of you not turning up is actually real money that is incurred to the hospital”, King explains.

3. Timely tax payments

In Guatemala, the government sent tax reminder letters to citizens saying that 64.5% of their fellow citizens had declared their income tax on time. This led to a 43% increase in payments in just 11 weeks.

Moreover, the effect of the new letter was not just one-off; it can increase tax revenues in the long-term. The effects are “persistent and remain at 12 month follow up”, a report on the Guatemala experiment says. This suggests that “the letters actually increased revenue for the tax authority, rather than just bringing tax receipts forward”.

The experiment was a replication of an earlier trial in the UK, which demonstrates how there are common approaches that be can be taken across different nations.

4. Ready to recycle

Elsewhere, behavioural science is being used to encourage people to recycle.

UNDP China partnered with Chinese search giant Baidu to launch a recycling app that links up users with the nearest legitimate e-waste recycling companies. The team also sought help from behavioural insights experts to learn ways to motivate users to recycle more, such as introducing a rewards system to the app.

The app was first piloted in Beijing and Tianjin. Now, people in 22 cities use it. They dispose 5,900 electronic items per month on average.

5. Leading social change

In the US, behavioural science can help to reduce lead poisoning in children. At least four million households across the US are being exposed to high levels of lead, with young children and babies especially vulnerable. Furthermore, lead poisoning is irreversible. Rayid Ghani, Director of the Centre for Data Science and Public Policy at the University of Chicago, and his team developed a system that can predict the risk of a child getting poisoned.

The system uses data about the child’s family, neighbourhood, and environment to make these predictions. “We take anything we know about the kid, parents and house,” Ghani told GovInsider. This includes when the house was built, its location, how many apartments and floors it has, and whether there were any incidents nearby. This predictive system will be launched across Chicago in the next few weeks, he added.

He has also developed systems that help to lower rates of recidivism, and identify police officers that may be stressed and in need of counselling.

6. A healthy citizen is a happy citizen

What about ‘nudging’ people to go for healthier food and drink choices? Behavioural Insights Team Australia conducted a trial to find out the impact of a 20% price increase on sugar-sweetened drinks in some of the country’s hospitals. Results showed that there was a “significant” 44% reduction in the number of sugary drinks sold.

If citizens have more information on their personal health, they will take ownership over their wellbeing—which will translate into less strain on the healthcare system. This was the thinking behind Singapore’s new HealthHub, an online platform that allows people to access their online health records from public hospitals and clinics.

They will be able to view hospital discharge summaries, test results for chronic diseases, health screening records and upcoming medical appointments. The portal also has articles on healthy living and rewards for healthy behaviour.

Across the world, governments are seeing the benefits of applying behavioural science to improving services, environments, and lives. With the right evidence at hand, small and often inexpensive changes can have a big impact.