Public policy with a true human face

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This blog is part of the series "Small changes, big impacts: applying #behavioralscience into development".

The other day I forgot my cellphone at home. On our way to her school my three-year old daughter asked me why I had forgotten it. “I don’t know, I was distracted I guess,” I answered back, only to be faced with another “why” question from her. Of course, it didn’t stop there. After the third “why” I really couldn’t come up with anything sensible to say and, I confess, I wasn’t finding the line of questioning amusing anymore. Yet, that very short exchange pretty much summed up the case for applying behavioral insights into public policy. How?

Chances are you have sometimes forgotten something unintentionally. We humans forget things from time to time and miss deadlines without meaning to do so. We really try to exercise, eat healthy, and lose weight but find it hard to do so. And if that salt shaker is at your restaurant table you are much more likely to add salt to your plate than if it is not. We tend to go with the flow and we often don’t think hard enough about why we do the things we do. This is the reason we find the relentless “why” questions from a toddler so charming; we’re simply not used to questioning ourselves why we do certain things.

Even more telling, when asked we often don’t even have a good intuition as to what’s really behind many of our actions. This doesn’t just apply to mundane tasks like carrying your cellphone around or adding salt to your plate. Ask yourself how did you get to support or disagree with the latest policy reform proposed by your government. Did you read the draft legislation from beginning to end to come up with your position or did you just rely on what someone else said about it, perhaps drawing on what the newspaper or politician you typically like said? Drawing on such shortcuts is not always wrong. In fact, they make perfect sense as a way of coping with the enormous complexity that surrounds us. Applying behavioral insights into public policy is nothing more than taking seriously these simple truths.

Nudging in Latin America
The very good news is that the application of behavioral insights into public policy is happening already, in Latin America too. And one of the most encouraging lessons from the applications thus far is that small changes in public policy can have big impacts. In Peru, a simple but clever intervention by the Ministry of Education, in collaboration with the World Bank and others, aims to change children’s and teacher’s attitudes towards learning by emphasizing how being smart is something every student can work on. This draws on the growth mindset literature, which highlights that when students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. The intervention, which cost only 20 cents per student, resulted in an increase of student test scores of a sizeable magnitude.

This finding is particularly important for less privileged socioeconomic groups, which may have a greater tendency to view smartness as an unchangeable trait, as shown in a most comprehensive survey done in Chile. And many other interventions are being explored by MineduLab, the innovation lab of the Ministry of Education in Peru, to address education related challenges such as teacher absenteeism, teacher motivation, improving student performance, increasing parents’ engagement, and reducing drop-out rates.

The World Bank has partnered with authorities at all levels to implement projects on a variety of fields. In Guatemala and Costa Rica, jointly with the United Kingdom’s Behavioral Insights Team—the pioneer among government units to apply behavioral insights into public policy—the effort achieved an increase in tax compliance through reaching out to taxpayers by letters and text messages. In Costa Rica we partnered with the municipality of Belen, as well as with the organization ideas42, and improved water conservation by informing households of how their water consumption compared to the average in their neighborhood.

 Proyecto de Mejoramiento de los Servicios de Justicia

Behavioral method: learn, test and adapt

An important contribution of behavioral insights into public policy is the method itself. It starts with a clear definition of what is the problem at hand, stated without any assumptions as to the drivers of the behavior in question. This is easier said than done as often we have entrenched preconceived ideas about what those drivers may be. It follows with a systematic series of “why” question, not unlike my three-year old’s, that should guide some analysis and diagnosis of the behavior of the individuals involved. Finally, and key to the method, is the emphasis on an iterative process in which we set things up in a way to have fast and frequent feedback loops so that we can continually learn, test, and adapt.

Rigorous testing requires the type of administrative data that tax authorities or mandated scholastic achievement tests provide. This is needed to unequivocally establish the causal impact of interventions which are often deceptively simple and that often run counter the myth that big problems always require big solutions. At the same time, looking ahead, we may need to start considering how these behavioral insights can also inform public policy in areas that may be important but where we may not have as much data or opportunities for randomized interventions.

Despite those challenges the range of topics where behavioral insights are being applied keeps expanding. Ideas42, mentioned above, is exploring the application of behavioral science to improve case management for women affected by intimate partner violence in Bolivia. Technology can be a significant factor in expanding the scope of behaviorally-informed interventions. In Mexico, the President’s Office is working with the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team and Unicef, in a new two-way SMS system where both parties can send messages called Prospera Digital—one of the first of its kind in the world—to give expecting mothers a way to interact and influence the advice they receive, create personalize appointments, and plan for emergencies as well as the delivery.

Why not?
Imagine if we could make this type of intervention more like the norm rather than the exception. Imagine if public policy recognized our very human weaknesses and that deliberately paused to ask “why” with the relentless of a toddler and the rigor of the scientific method. Imagine if doing so we could make public policy more effective.

As the World Bank, governments, and partners continue experimenting and applying behavioral science in government programs and policies, we will share with you through this series ‘Small changes, big impacts: applying #behavioralscience into development’ every two weeks, the latest development and thinking in the region. Join us and share your thoughts, your work and thinking.


Oscar Calvo-González

Practice Manager, Poverty

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