BETA ideas to nudge public servants back to work

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday December 8, 2015

When the federal government’s new central behavioural economics team gets to work in February, public servants will be among its first subjects.

BETA, a clever acronym for the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government, is already working on projects to reduce unscheduled absences, get injured public servants back to work sooner and reduce the effect of “unconscious bias” on merit-based recruitment.

The new team will work from the centre of government and is a joint venture between 10 agencies, led by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet through its Office of Best Practice Regulation.

Also on board are the Australian Taxation Office and the Digital Transformation Office, along with the departments of the Treasury, Agriculture and Water Resources, Communications and the Arts, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Employment, Environment, and Social Services.

“Transparency will be a priority for BETA and [so will] learning from other similar units throughout the world”

“A number of other agencies are considering joining,” a spokesperson from PM&C tells The Mandarin, and the priorities will “be set by, and align with” those partners.

The application of behavioural economics in public policy has typically focused on guiding citizens towards making choices — like paying a speeding fine on time instead of late — that are seen as being in everyone’s best interests.

This is described as a “nudge” by a pair of US academics whose book on the subject has been taken up in public administration around the world. The idea is that public servants take note of the irrational biases and behaviours to which we are all prone in the development of policies or communications material, for example, hoping to steer us in what seems like the best direction.

Proponents argue that the way a form or a letter is written or how a regulation is framed will unconsciously affect the choices people make regardless of whether any care is taken to nudge them in a particular direction.

To counter a perception that this is a paternalistic or authoritarian way to govern, the best practice is to be completely transparent about every intervention, according to leading experts. Others who have gone down the same path also say it is good to prove that each nudge will be cost-effective through small scale experimental trials.

“Transparency will be a priority for BETA and [so will] learning from other similar units throughout the world,” the PM&C spokesperson said. “The governance, operational budget and forward work programme are all in development.”

The Australian Taxation Office and Department of Human Services have already applied their own nudges at federal level in recent years.

The new team already has relationships with “numerous other behavioural insights units” and will be working with them on various projects, we’re told.

It’s likely PM&C is referring to those in the United States, New South Wales and the United Kingdom, where a behavioural economics unit established in the centre of government became an unusual joint-venture company that has positioned itself as a leading international purveyor of behavioural economics expertise.

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