From single point solution to systems change

how behavioural science can nudge us forward. The latest from UNDP

June 15, 2021

“The Development Agenda before us calls for radical behavior change. To then deliver sustainable development solutions we need to be tectonic and consider the basics of human cognition, the ability to engage in complex, goal-oriented behaviors, rather than just react to the moment at hand. This is the Weltanschauung that UNDP is promoting. We invite development thinkers and practitioners to join us in that journey.” — Abdoulaye Mar Dieye, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General and Special Advisor to the UNDP Administrator

Behavioural science is about understanding what works for humans. In the field of development, we tend to assume based on our expertise that what we know/believe to work, will eventually generate impact. What we may overlook, is that whatever we do has to do with humans and their complex behaviours.” — Tatevik Koloyan, UNDP Armenia

“On the one hand, behavioural science transforms how development work is conducted and programmes are implemented. I see it as a complementary tool that can work hand in hand with traditional methods — an innovation in the way challenges are diagnosed and entry points and improvements are identified. On the other hand, behavioural science brings on board the concept of experimentation and evidence-based testing to ensure that solutions are relevant and successful.” — Fatima Keaik, UNDP Kuwait

Here at UNDP, we recently did some organization-wide research to help us see the big picture of how behavioural science is currently applied in our work, the opportunities it holds for accelerating the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well the challenges to its widespread uptake. What we found among our colleagues is a clear recognition of the value of layering behavioural elements into the design of policies and programmes. This resonates both with the evolution of UNDP’s drive towards more systemic and integrated ways of doing development; and with what we’ve been hearing from behavioural scientists about their vision for BeSci for the decade ahead, namely for using behavioural science to achieve impact at scale.

We gathered the reflections of 40 or so BeSci experts and aficionados across the organization, and learned about some 50 projects and initiatives (and plenty more in the pipeline) covering a wide variety of thematics, including waste management, energy, agriculture, universal basic income, public administration, taxation, prevention of violent extremism, gender, health, entrepreneurship, employment, and also internal working dynamics. As the applications of behavioural science have expanded at UNDP, we are seeing a shift in how it is applied, and a shift in what we aspire to achieve through its use.

Ultimately, to encourage wide scale take up of BeSci, we need i) to consider it a default, not “innovative,” ii) to reflect on how it can best serve system change, and iii) to reconsider our organizational culture.

Insight #1: We need to consider BeSci as a default, not as an innovation.

The insights emerging from behavioural science are, by their very nature, intended to build on existing research and evidence… and then generate more of it through various forms of trial and testing. Understandably then, BeSci has proven an ideal tool for UNDP Accelerator Labs, given their core mandate of experimentation and learning, and strong local knowledge and networks that provide necessary context specificity.

But despite the widespread use of BeSci by innovation teams, the fact is that accounting for human behaviour in our ways of doing sounds so intuitive, that ideally it shouldn’t have to be considered “innovative” in the first place. To some extent, this is indicative of a bigger predicament — that experimentation and learning still tend to be considered “luxuries” in busy project and programme cycles.[1] And yet, challenging our assumptions about what works and why can presumably save both time and effort in the long run:

- One of UNDP’s earliest and most oft-cited experiments, in Moldova, managed to radically improve patients’ adherence to tuberculosis treatment. The government’s strategy legally required patients to make daily in-person visits to the clinic — a costly and time-consuming process. Instead, the experiment found, patients who were allocated to be remotely observed via video were twice as likely to take their medication (87 percent) compared to the control group (43 percent).

- In a recent example, in Pakistan, UNDP collaborated with the government to replace the mobile phone dial tone you hear when calling someone with a recorded behaviourally-informed health message on COVID-19. The message appealed among other factors to people’s sense of responsibility toward their loved ones and went through multiple rounds of small-scale testing before being rolled out nationwide (over 113 million people heard the message). Coronavirus Attitude Tracker Surveys carried out by Gallup Pakistan seem to indicate that the messages positively impacted knowledge, perceptions and behaviours — for instance, people reported being 43% more likely to wear masks.

- UNDP Ghana recently garnered interest in global UNDP discussions on the organization’s plastics offer with the behavioural archetypes it has developed. Personas, including “Eco-conscious Kofi”, “Maybe Mansa”, and “Just-Passing Ama” help us think beyond our stereotypes about who recycles and why. They also show that changing recycling behaviours is more complicated than preaching to the converted or making people perfect recyclers from one day to the next; there are many steps or smaller wins to be made along the way. The archetypes helped the Lab develop customized messaging that increased plastic collection by 18% in the course of their intervention.

Let’s not forget that we also have much to learn from failed experiments… but successful examples such as these have certainly contributed to the increasing take-up of BeSci in the wider organization and its gradual recognition as a lens that should be integrated across our operations and programmes. A few examples of what this looks like:

Thematic teams are increasingly taking up behavioural science.

For instance, explorations into the use of BeSci for the prevention of violent extremism in Sudan and Yemen — which showed that it is possible to nudge resilience and commitment to pro-social behaviours among at-risk individuals — led UNDP’s Crisis Bureau to explore similar work in Central Asia. Practical tools and lessons learned from these experiences have been compiled in a dedicated knowledge product.

Gender teams have long delved into the behaviours and social norms underpinning gender inequality. In the Maldives, BeSci is now being applied to break down gendered assumptions around participation in STEM-related fields. The intervention is taking place under the regional Transforming the Future of Work for Gender Equality Initiative, which intends to transform the existing ecosystem and power dynamics, rather than just promoting women’s empowerment.

A just-launched multi-country project on the applications of BeSci to youth entrepreneurship in the Arab States is bringing together gender, youth, and entrepreneurship teams in Country Offices to explore the behavioural barriers that are holding back traditional entrepreneurship projects, whether linked to individuals, families, policymakers, financing institutions, or other actors in the ecosystem.

And, an interesting piece of research by UNDP China used a behavioural lens to explore the viability of Universal Basic Income (UBI) in China. The team developed a simulation game to understand whether players would alter their decision-making and behaviours after receiving UBI allotments. The study found that players were more or less likely to alter their behaviour depending on factors such as their educational background, income level, working hours, and care burdens; but that overall, if UBI were implemented, people would tend to continue working and save UBI benefits, reflective of traditional Chinese culture.

Several UNDP Country Offices are also supporting the use of Behavioural Science within the public sector.

UNDP Georgia’s multi-stakeholder BeSci work, notably on gender-based violence (examining why bystanders fail to report instances of violence), has aimed to develop the BeSci capacities of government departments and academia in the process. UNDP Kuwait has supported the set-up of a dedicated BI unit within government (the Kuwait Policy Appraisal Lab) and recently hosted an ideathon, open to public sector employees and others from across the Arab States region, seeking solutions that leveraged behavioural insights while supporting public sector effectiveness in times of crisis.

Insight #2: We need to reflect on how BeSci can best serve systemic change.

Since at least 2014, behavioural insights research and “nudging” have helped colleagues across UNDP to come to grips with the sometimes unexpected human behaviours that may have influenced the progress of their projects.

Going forward, as we increasingly look to portfolio approaches and system-level change to tackle complex, global, and rapidly evolving challenges such as climate change, we need to reflect more on the role and importance of individual and group behaviours in contributing to well-functioning systems. In particular:

  • How might we be able to deploy behavioural science to unlock multiple parts of the system at once? How can we best assess where behavioural science could leverage a disproportionate impact? And when it comes to nudging at policy level in particular, how do we uncover behaviours in the more hidden parts of the system (e.g., incentive structures in our economic systems and how they hinder progress on tackling climate change)?
  • Working at systems level can entail more complex learning questions that may be difficult to measure through randomized controlled trials. Will we increasingly need to defer to proxies or qualitative measurement?
  • To what extent are our behavioural interventions achieving sustained behaviour change? Would results replicate at scale? What would it look like to work on longer-term testing horizons, iterating on interventions to keep up their efficacy and relevance?

Similar questions seem to be on the minds of behavioural scientists and practitioners across the board.[2]

Insight #3: We need to reconsider our organizational culture for BeSci to be impactful.

Our internal survey revealed several factors that can enable or hinder the take-up of behavioural science and insights within the organization:

1. Understanding of BeSci and the learning mindset that it demands: In order for BeSci to become an integral part of our policy, programme, and operations design, not used ad hoc or once projects hit a wall, we need a widespread organizational understanding of the utility of experimentation/learning and the possibilities that it offers. We need more knowledge sharing around the behavioural dimensions of our work, and we must be able to follow and leverage the latest research, especially that emerging from developing countries, traditionally underrepresented in BeSci discourse. Examples of recent UNDP capacity development efforts have included a Fast-Action Clinic on Behavioural Insights for Accelerator Labs, and a training for UNDP youth focal points and partner organizations in the Arab States in the context of Covid-19.

2. Funding that is flexible enough to allow for experimentation — a challenge, if donors are unconvinced of the need to allow for failure and risk.

3. Ethics: Ethical concerns specific to BeSci include the need to base social-norm related messaging (in particular) in data (e.g., “most people in XX believe YY”); how to disclose to participants that they are taking part in an experiment without compromising its results; and ensuring that experiments are implemented as per guidelines, when delivered through intermediaries. Among the solutions, colleagues’ suggestions are to: ensure close collaboration with stakeholders from the outset; to sign non-disclosure agreements on the handling of data; to institute cyber-security systems; and to make use of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) where they exist.

As behavioural science continues to evolve through its second decade in the public policy realm, development practice is learning fast about the pitfalls, opportunities, and questions that BeSci poses. UNDP looks forward to uniting this growing organizational expertise in the service of ethical, smarter, and more strategic ways of doing.

Have a look at our working database of UNDP BeSci initiatives, to be updated regularly!

[1] This gets to the heart of what UNDP’s new Strategic Innovation Unit is all about: helping the organization evolve from a drive for project delivery to one that constantly defines and refines its strategic intent on the basis of learning and reflection.

[2] See for example Bhanot and Linos (2019), Behavioral Public Administration: Past, Present, and Future.

“The blog was originally published on December 17, 2020 on Republished for UN Behavioural Science Week, June 21-25 2021”