Behavioural science teams around the globe: the White House and apples…

31 March 2015Rory Gallagher


Tagsinternational, us

Over the past couple of years we have seen the emergence of a global network of behavioural insights teams and units in countries from across the globe.


As the first Behavioural Insights (BI) team in the Australian government, we are always excited to see the growth and development of other BI teams around the world. And over the past couple of years we have seen the emergence of a global network of teams and units in countries from across the globe.

This month marks the one year anniversary of the establishment of the Social and Behavioural Sciences Team in the US, which is led by Dr Maya Shankar in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Similarly to the approach of the UK Behavioural Insights Team (UK BIT) and our central BI Unit here in NSW, the White House team has focused on applying behavioural research to design interventions that can make government more simple, effective and human-centred. Our respective teams have all taken an evidence-based approach, running a series of randomised controlled trials to determine what works.

A recent blog post sets out one of the White House team’s early successes and the video shows them meeting President Obama. Importantly, in his recent 2016 Budget, the President announced additional funding to expand the work of the team.  

This reflects a wider international trend, with specialist teams being set up within major multilateral organisations, such as the World Bank and the European Commission, as well as central government teams in countries such as Germany, Canada and Singapore.

Closer to home, we are excited to engage with the growing number of teams who are applying BI at both a State and Federal level.

This reflects a groundswell of government support for improving services and policy with cutting edge behavioural research, as well as willingness to trial and experiment. For us in the NSW central BI Unit, it also means a growing pool of on-the-ground applied evidence of BI, and potentially opportunities for multi-jurisdictional collaboration.

But what makes a successful specialist BI team, and what does this have to do with apples?!

APPLES is a mnemonic devised by the UK BIT to encapsulate some of the key success factors for developing an effective central behavioural insights function:

  • Administration: To be a success, a central team must have people who understand the machinery of government and who know how to get things through the ‘system’. You can have read all the behavioural literature you like, but without traction in government, things will be hard.
  • Politics: In the early days especially, it is very important to have senior political support. BIT has always had very close support from both the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister, and in NSW we have been fortunate to have the support of the Premier.
  • People: The most important lesson of all.  You are nothing without your people. So being able to, for example, control your own recruitment is essential for a team that requires a variety of specialist skills.
  • Location: In government, it matters where you are located. Being physically close to your political sponsors is both symbolically important and helps cement ties.
  • Experimentation: One of the key early lessons was embedding a culture of testing and trialling, as a means of being able to demonstrate efficacy.
  • Scholarship: Alongside the administrative ties, strong links with academia are essential. Knowing and being able to apply the behavioural science literature is, after all, the core of what behavioural insight units do.

We are always keen to engage with and learn from people and other teams applying BI to public policy, so if you want to discuss please email us at: [email protected]