Nudge Unit developing tools to improve civil service management practices

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 19 October 2017 in News
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Behavioural Insights Team annual report details its work with departments, including ‘TripAdvisor-style’ feedback tool to help CCS boost spend with SMEs

David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Behavioural Insight Team is developing new tools to improve management practices within the civil service, and has worked with the Crown Commercial Service this year to develop a “TripAdvisor-style” feedback platform for public sector procurement.

The tools, which Civil Service World understands are currently being trialled with results due later this year, are among a raft of projects the now-privatised former civil service “nudge unit” is undertaking to enhance productivity and efficiency in the public sector.

"Our work this year included several projects to improve productivity and efficiency in the public sector, including developing and trialling new tools to improve management practices within the civil service, and improving feedback systems for public sector procurement," the BIT's annual report stated.

“We are excited about our early results from using machine learning predictive analytic techniques, which we think have the potential to greatly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of public services, including how services listen to and learn from the experiences of users,” the report added.

The CCS platform – which in initial testing has shown smaller suppliers receiving better feedback from government buyers on quality of service than larger ones, leading BIT to claim it will boost government spend with small businesses – is among the successes listed in BIT’s annual report for 2016-17.


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BIT was part-privatised in 2014 but still sells a lot of its services to government, and has run more than 130 controlled trials this year, according to its report.

Over the past year it has also been commissioned by NHS England to develop a tool that helped reduce patient referrals to overbooked hospitals by 38%; and by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on a project that resulted in 8% annual reductions in household gas consumption through the use of smart heating controls.

BIT aims to boost the impact and cost effectiveness of certain policies, often simply by tinkering with the wording of government communications with the public.

It claims successes over the past year in a number of its trials, including a 20% reduction in reoffending rates for drivers caught speeding and a £10 intervention that increased pass rates for GCSE students by 27% in maths or English.

David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, explained these findings: “A key theme of our work this year has been longer term impacts of ‘nudges’. 

“We found that speeding re-offending was reduced by adding an explanation of why and how speeding limits are set [in letters sent to offenders], or that exam pass rates can be boosted by nearly a third though a small number of texts.”

He also stressed that the team was committed to using behavioural science for good, and that all organisations using such techniques must commit to transparency.

The findings come a week after economist Richard Thaler, author of Nudge and member of the BIT advisory board, won the Nobel prize for economics for his contributions to behavioural science.

One of the results highlighted in the report is evidence that introducing feedback platforms in procurement could support government’s aim of spending more on goods and services with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Based on evidence from consumer markets showing that feedback platforms improve competition and particularly benefit new and smaller companies, BIT has worked with CCS this year to trial a new feedback tool for public sector procurement.

It involves CCS collecting supplier feedback from purchasers for some IT products and office supplies on its frameworks. The numbers in the pilot are small – and feedback has not yet been displayed to buyers – but initial findings suggest the SMEs are just as likely to get 5-star ratings and less likely to receive negative reviews than larger companies.

The report says: “Despite the development of TripAdvisor-style platforms across consumer markets, which help people share information on quality and improve purchasing decisions, business-to-business markets in the UK remain deeply shrouded.

“Government has an opportunity to take a lead in demonstrating how feedback can transform these markets.”

Commenting on the report, Sir Jeremy Heywood, cabinet secretary and head of the civil service said that BIT was the first government unit in the world dedicated to the application of behavioural approaches to policymaking.

“The team has brought novel solutions to the most persistent policy challenges,” he said.

“Looking at what BIT has achieved this year it is hard not to feel pride that it was the UK civil service that fostered this world leader in government innovation, and to be excited to see what the year ahead brings.”

BIT, initially set up inside No 10 under then prime minister David Cameron, is now a social purpose company that was spun out of government in 2014. It is owned jointly by the Cabinet Office, innovation charity Nesta and its employees, and has opened offices in New York, Sydney, Singapore and Wellington.

Most major government departments now have a behavioural insights function of their own, many of them supported by BIT.

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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