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Bridging Science and Public Policy for a Better British Columbia

Behavioural science crosses many disciplines to intersect evidence and decision-making. The Science and Policy Integration Network’s BC Science and Policy Forum aims to bridge the gap between scientists and policymakers for effective policy development.

Editor’s Intro: The behavioral science movement has deeply affected the commercial world. However, it’s impact hasn’t been limited to the for-profit world, governments and non-profits around the world have looked to behavioral science insights to drive public policy as well. Arundati Dandapani describes a recent presentation in Canada that discusses behavioral science initiatives in British Columbia.


The Science and Policy Integration Network (SPIN) hosted their annual BC (British Columbia) Science and Policy Conference on May 11th this year. Sam Sullivan, Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia for Vancouver False Creek, opened with the provocation that our assumptions about the world are usually wrong and that we require education and educational institutions to change our intuitive assumptions about reality. Politics and electoral campaigns can often illustrate how information and intelligence are susceptible to abuse where scientific inquiry is divorced from public discourse in an age of the fast-moving internet with a prevailing self-confirmation bias. Conference highlights can be read here.

Public Policy is about the People

Dr. Maria Giammarco, Behavioural Scientist, Privy Council Office, Environment & Climate Change Canada, convened on the importance of “Putting People into Policy”. Context matters, she said. We respond differently to the same choice depending on how it is presented or framed, and our behaviour is shaped by our environment. Our thoughts, although governed by two cognitive systems—emotional, fast and automatic versus rational, slow and reflective—generate an “intention-action” gap, with policy often being designed not accounting for how humans really behave. For example, there’s a tendency to assume that humans are completely rational. Behavioural insights in policy are harnessed to create behavioural interventions (nudges) to improve policies, programs and services by encouraging positive behaviour and closing these intention-action gaps. Experimental approach methodology uses background (desk and end-user) research, generating behaviourally informed interventions that test how policy changes compare with existing policies. Interventions in the BC Public Service have aimed at reducing hiring times, encouraging charitable giving, improving tax compliance and timely income assistance submissions, and enabling environmental compliance.

The Best Measure of a Nudge

The best measure of nudge-effectiveness will revolve around the behaviour(s) a nudge is aiming to shift—i.e., being able to measure a statistically significant impact of a nudge or intervention or multiple interventions on behaviour compared to the status quo. If you are trying to nudge more citizens into paying their taxes on time using a behaviourally informed reminder message, seeing a significantly higher number of on-time payments for citizens who received the reminder as against those who received the control, would be your measure of whether the nudge worked. Further, to quantify the magnitude of that difference or analyze how effective the nudge is, you would look at other statistical measures such as effect size. Beyond quantitative measures of behaviour, you can look to secondary quantitative and qualitative measures to get a more holistic understanding, for example, by surveying whether people are more satisfied with the new reminder system.

Nudges for Public Policy Versus Nudges in Business

Behavioural insights for public policy don’t have to differ from those in business in terms of general methodologies, but the context of the types of nudges designed (eg. for public services and programs vs. corporate goals or client needs) could be quite different, and the end goals and motivators might be quite different as well. For example, while a government may be concerned with saving taxpayer dollars and supporting social welfare through improved social services, a business might be focused on marketing or product strategies. Though it is also possible that businesses outside government—including both for-profit and non-profit organizations—are focused on similar concerns as government (social welfare) but simply have a different jurisdiction than the government. It’s all about the context of the organization and their mandate.

Bridging Science and Policy Means Business

Can BC better support and strengthen the use of science, or even behavioural science, for policy development? Is the acceptability of a given risk a political question to be determined in the political arena, or largely determined by values, economics, and other factors? Scientists measure risk, and politicians weigh in and their estimation may not be scientific or objective. Objectivity is further compromised when there is a lack of dialogue between the scientific concern and the political concern. SPIN’s conference revealed gaps between science and policy that spell opportunities for businesses, whether as people (expectation) managers, accountability-hacks, dialogue-facilitators or disruptors looking to dive deep in public opinion research (local, provincial, national, international) and marketing metrics to offer integrated solutions to consumer-citizen problems.

For the full conference update and more blogs like this please visit www.generation1.ca

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