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4 Ways Behavioural Insights Can Improve Citizen Engagement

The insights from the ‘behavioural sciences’ are being used increasingly by governments around the world to help citizens make better choices. Can behavioural insights be used by the community engagement sector to help get more people more engaged?

Just in case you are really extraordinarily busy and have no time to read this post, this is the pithiest of summaries. The people from the UK Government’s behavioural insights (BI) team have proposed four key principles for behavioural insights that have a lot to offer community engagement practitioners.

4 key behavioural insights:

  1. Make it easy
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make is social
  4. Make it timely

Take these thoughts and run with them!

Just last week I was roped in to be part of a ‘panel’, at an internet governance conference in Melbourne, to discuss how the burgeoning ‘behavioural insights’ (BI) movement might assist the digital engagement sector.

While I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about digital engagement, I haven’t spent a lot of time exploring the behavioural insights literature; and so, not wanting to appear the ignoramus, I thought it best to brush up!

It turns out that, while not without it’s critics (and not without reason), it’s a thoroughly interesting area of work and research; and, while some of the examples that are bandied about suffer from the “isn’t that a bit obvious” phenomenon, there are more than enough interesting examples to make it worth a deeper look.

I’m specifically concerned here with driving both broader and deeper participation in community engagement with conversations about public policy, public sector services, public infrastructure and the like.

A very short Behavioural Insights backgrounder

Just last month, Barack Obama issued an Executive Order directing all US federal agencies to apply insights from behavioural science to improving programs and to rigorously evaluate the impacts of these insights. The UK government has had a BI team in place since 2010. The New South Wales government followed suit in 2013 and went so far to import the Director of its BI team from the UK. The University of Chicago has established a “Behavioural Insights and Parenting Lab” within the Centre for Human Potential and Public Policy to look at closing the parenting gap between rich and poor families.

So what exactly is behavioural insights? And what value can it add to community engagement practice?

The UK Nudge Unit provides the following working definition:

Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement.

Examples of projects the UK BI team have worked on include:

  1. Including a picture of an unregistered vehicle along with letters to owners of those vehicles to remind them that their registration is due.
  2. Sending personalised text messages to people with outstanding fines to let them know that the bailiff will be knocking at the door in ten days.
  3.  Redesigning prescription forms to make it easier to distinguish between micrograms and milligrams in order to reduce errors.
  4. Encouraging charitable donations in wills by providing a telephone will writing service and asking precisely the right question about social issues they might be passionate about.
  5. Encouraging people to join the organ donor register by asking “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help.”

Criticism of Behavioural Insights

Behavioural insights is not without its critics. An opinion piece in New Scientist, provocatively titled, Nudge’ policies are another name for coercion’ noted:

Much criticism of this approach comes…  from libertarians, who see little difference between guiding a person’s choices and eliminating them.

A nudge is like a shove, they argue, only more disreputable because it pretends otherwise.

Paula Zoido-Oses makes a different argument:

The problem with nudges is that they pose a threat to the only principle that makes us feel at ease with our acceptance of the state as a coercive power: the right to dissent.

In other words, we can imagine that the state’s understanding of the good life may be very different from ours at some point, and having a right to dissent allows us not only to choose well despite the efforts of the state, but also to let the state know of our disagreement.

The right to dissent is a safety net for citizens, just as essential for the proper functioning of democratic liberal states as the acceptance of the rule of law is.

The problem with nudge policies is not that they threaten our freedom to choose to act badly; the problem is that they threaten our freedom to choose to act well.

All of which means that behavioural insight techniques have to be approached with caution and applied within the confines of a strong ethical framework.

Behavioural Insights and Community Engagement

The UK BI Team put together a great publication to make these techniques accessible to the public sector. EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights suggests that if you want to encourage a particular behaviour, make it easy, attractive, social and timely.

I have taken the liberty of using their principles and insights as a framework for the rest of this post, which looks at the application of behavioural insights to digital citizen engagement.

Principle #1: Make it Easy

Make your preferred option the default

What do you want people to do?

Do want them to read something? Do you want them to watch a video? Do you want them to provide you with ideas or feedback, or to tell your their story, or to register for your newsletter, or to come along to your meeting, or provide their personal details so that you can contact them later?

Really, what is the one thing that you want them to do?

Once you have answered this question, the design of your online engagement space follows.

A very small example from the digital engagement space; there is an ongoing debate in the digital community about the ethics of ‘opt-in’ versus ‘opt-out’.

When a community member uses one of our online discussion forums for public policy debate or dialogue, on leaving a comment they are asked whether they would like to be notified if/when someone responds their comment. Because the clients we work with want to see a “conversation” in the forums, rather than a series of “position statements”, we have use the “opt-in” strategy by ticking the “notify me when a reply is posted” box. This draws participants back into the forum space over and over again, (hopefully) provoking deeper dialogue and more shared learning.

Reduce the ‘hassle factor’

The harder you make it for people to join the conversation, the fewer people you will hear from. Simple as that.

Barriers to entry are inherent in all forms of citizen engagement; whether through accessibility, methodology or technology. There will almost always be people who, for whatever reason, cannot participate.

The trick is to be clear with yourself about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing and to pick methods, technologies, places and times that make it more or less easy to hear from people.

In a digital context my favourite ‘bad practice’ example was an online survey I once attempted to complete for a Federal Government agency; right up until I discovered that there was a 50 question survey prequel to fill before I was even allowed to provide my opinion! I think I got to page five before giving up.

Admittedly this was a ‘worse case’ scenario. As a general rule, keeping the ‘registration’ process to an absolute minimum, or, if at all possible, getting rid of it altogether is a good idea.

Typically there are a few options when it comes to gathering community input online:

  • You can ask people to register before they join the conversation. This may be appropriate if your principal goal is to build a database of people to have lots of conversations over time.
  • Alternatively, you could gather feedback without requiring people to register at all. This is a little more fraught and leaves the process open to easy “stacking”, but in the right circumstances may be okay and will definitely drive higher participation rates.
  • A third option is to gather the input first and then ask for registration details in order to finalise the ‘submission’ process.

Each method has its merits depending on your strategic objective.

Simplify your messages

The six rules of effective web copywriting are:

  1. Write in plain English
  2. Include a clear call to action
  3. Provide a clear incentive to participate
  4. Keep it brief
  5. Turn your ‘essay’ upside down
  6. Use a conversational tone

Conversely, this means leaving all government speak, jargon and unnecessary technical detail out of your landing page text. It can always be captured in supplementary information if it is absolutely necessary.

Principle #2: Make it Attractive

Draw attention

The UK BI team note that “people are more likely to respond to stimuli that are novel, simple and accessible.” You can draw attention to something through both aesthetics and facts (or consequences), or a combination of both.

Aesthetics doesn’t have to be “pretty”, indeed it could be as simple as sticking a hand-written post-it note onto a personal letter. Even if the letter doesn’t get read, you can be pretty sure that the post-it note will.

It the context of digital engagement, however, this is a where the rubber hits the road for the combination of visual design and user experience.

As for point #1 above, you need to know exactly what it is you most want your site visitor to do, and then make it as easy as possible to find.

The worst possible online experience is to be confronted by too many options, particularly when those options are made opaque by bad design or disguised by an overwhelming volume of impenetrable information.

Consider rewards & sanctions

A number of our clients have used ‘prizes’ – iPads, movie tickets – in an attempt to drive up participation rates. My observation is that it is not a particularly effective strategy.

I was asked recently about the use of incentives to drive up participation rates. My response was that the very best form of incentive is to consult on topics of real interest to your target audience.

That isn’t to say that other forms of ‘reward’ might not be effective.

For example, it would be worth experimenting with rewarding early participants in a consultation process with ‘privileges’ during later stages of the consultation process. For example, they might be invited back to small group online (or off-line) dialogue sessions when plans or policies are starting to take shape.

It would also seem reasonable to use a cap on the numbers of people involved in face-to-face consultations (due to room number capacity) by requiring particular forms of online behaviour; for example, completion of a more in-depth registration process.

I’ve always felt that the closer a policy or planning process is to the final decision, and therefore, the more influence the participant potentially has on that decision, then the more responsibility they have to own their input into that decision.

For example, it might be okay to accept ideas from a really wide group of people at the early stage in the policy development process, without requiring those people to register to participate.

In contrast, it may be better to seek input from a smaller, more committed, and more transparent, group of people in the later, more critical and interrogative phase of the policy development process – and therefore to require a fairly in-depth registration process.

Principle #3: Make it Social

Show that other people are contributing

Socialise participation in consultation processes so that it is seen as ‘normal’.

This is a key draw back of using online surveys to gather community input into your processes. Surveys lack transparency and are, by design, anti-social. So choose another online tool.

There are lots of options: online forums, online ideation, online stories, online Q&A, online community mapping, online collaborative writing. Be brave, try something new!

Use the power of networks

Make it easy for your participants to share their input and your project with their network of friends, colleagues and peers.

This means, at a minimum, your online portal should incorporate social sharing options. But it will also effect the tools you choose (remembering that surveys are not shareable) and the messages of encouragement you use.

This could be built into the application, or it could be a thank you message that also prompts the participant to share a link to your project with their networks.

Encourage commitment to others

For most of us, it is easier to get something done (particularly something we don’t particularly want to do) when we have promised someone else that we will do it. Exercise is a great example. How much easier is it to drag yourself out of bed in the morning to head out to the gym or for a run if you know your exercise buddy is out there waiting for you in the cold?!

A similar psychological game can be applied to other aspects of our life. Social commitments can be used to drive behaviour in a particular direction.

In a digital engagement context, this could mean requiring participants in an online discussion to make a long term commitment to other participants to stay involved regularly.

A great working example of this was a long term project run out of the US with survivors of breast cancer. In week one, participants were asked to share their personal stories online and to make a commitment to the other participants to stick to the rules of engagement and to return weekly to the discussion.

Principle #4: Make it Timely

Prompt people at the best time

When is the ‘right time’ to ask people to participate in a conversation about public policy?

I think there may be at least a couple of different ways to address this question.

First, it is arguable that there is no ‘right’ time to get people participating. This is the beauty of asynchronous online engagement. It puts the timing of participation squarely in the hands of the participants.

However, is there a ‘right’ time to ‘advertise’ the fact that the opportunity to get involved exists? Here’s a great article by the people at MailChimp about the optimal times of the day and week to send out email campaigns; which is all very well if you have a well established online database.

If you don’t have an online database, or you’re trying to build a bigger one, or you just want to reach a broader audience, then the best time to let people know that there is opportunity to have their say online is the very moment that they first learn about the issue under discussion, and then every time they hear about thereafter.

This means making sure the URL for you online portal is front and centre on any collateral, signage, media releases, or any other material that is likely to be floating around the community.

Think about immediate costs and benefits

Economists have long known that we value one dollar today more than we value two dollars tomorrow. Which is why they love to discount future costs and benefits – something I never quite came to terms with as an environmental economist in my early 20s.

  • What does this mean for community engagement?
  • What is the immediate benefit of participation?
  • Conversely, what is the long term cost of not participating?

It is often the case the public policy conversations lack any tangible immediate benefit at all. Often, participation is driven more by fear of losing something in the longer term.

Fear is not a great starting point for a rich dialogue. Can this be turned around by focusing participation strategy on immediate benefits? One option is to make the immediate output of the engagement process positive, creative and constructive.

In a digital context, this might mean using tools that are more visually dynamic and that “grow” as new content is added. Simple online ideation and community mapping tools tend to get higher volumes of input than less ‘responsive’ mechanisms.

Behavioural Insights and Democracy!

As noted above, we need to be incredibly careful when applying these lessons to community engagement practice. The biggest risk, to my mind, is that we use these lessons for evil, rather than good, by driving people to take a particular position, rather than by driving people to simply take part.

I’ll leave it to the New Scientist to close the loop on the critical importance of community engagement, and indeed, participatory democracy, in the context of governments adoption of behavioural insights techniques.

All this suggests democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones.

Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business.

Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them.

It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well.

While democratic institutions need reform to build in dialogue between citizens and experts, they should not be bypassed. By cutting dialogue and diversity for concealed and unaccountable decision-making, “nudge” politics attacks democracy’s core. We should not give in to temptation – and save our benevolent meddling for family reunions.