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Harnessing behavioural insights to create better policies

27 September 2021

News and media


Image of Course convenor Dr Filia Garivaldis

All public servants deal with people, and most policies and programs are asking people to change their behaviour. Understanding behavioural science and how to apply it, can help the public sector to avoid mistakes and deliver better results for the community.

The importance of behaviour change has become apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic and ANZSOG has partnered with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute’s BehaviourWorks Institute to offer Harnessing behavioural insights: a course designed and tailored to introduce participants to key behavioural science principles and topics.

This new micro-credentialled course from ANZSOG and Monash University’s BehaviourWorks Australia offers an opportunity to critically engage with behaviour change theory and practice to inform decision making and program planning.

Course convenor Dr Filia Garivaldis said that human behaviour was a wide field of study with a point of interest for everyone, including public sector leaders.

“It is about knowing what it is to be human and our strengths and weaknesses. In the public sector all work involves getting people to change their behaviour or behave in a certain way,” she said.

“People often act in very automatic ways. We rely on assumptions, biases and rules of thumb, particularly when we have limited time.

“We need to think about what the resulting implications are for policy-makers. Policymakers need to understand and be aware of their biases and put measures in place to circumvent them in order to make well-informed decisions.”

Dr Garivaldis is an organisational psychologist who has worked in the academic sector in Australia and abroad, before joining BehaviourWorks. She is an accomplished educator who specialises in creating impactful online learning experiences.

Dr Garivaldis will be joined by BehaviourWorks director and co-founder Professor Liam Smith, one of Australia’s leading authorities on behaviour change, and Dr Sarah Kneebone, manager of BehaviourWorks executive training program, in co-presenting Harnessing behavioural insights.

A toolkit for changing behaviour

Dr Garivaldis said that the course offered an introduction to the BehaviourWorks methods and would take participants on a journey from understanding behaviour to changing it.

“We start with thinking about what are ways to define human behaviour: from the broad to the more specific. How we define behaviours in detail sets us up for success later, we need to take into account the attitudes and behaviours involved and think about the main drivers of behaviour which are what we need to work with, rather than against,” she said.

BehaviourWorks uses a ‘wave’ framework composed of three parts:

Explore: understand the problem and gather information
Deep Dive: understand the behaviours and the psychological factors and/or barriers behind them
Application and Intervention: focus on changing behaviour.

The framework is suitable in a variety of contexts and has delivered benefits in health, environment, education, and social inclusion spaces, Dr Garivaldis said.

“It’s a reliable process to follow. It doesn’t guarantee success, but it does take the guesswork out of how to apply behavioural insights in policymaking.”

Dr Garivaldis said participants would also learn a range of techniques and methods that are easy to apply to the real-world challenges of their work, such as systems mapping and looking for evidence around policy approaches.

“We need to use tools like systems-thinking because behaviours occur within systems, and carefully consider whether it is systems or behaviours that need to change,” she said.

“It’s important to understand what has already worked and get insights from domains such as psychology. There is a lot of evidence freely available, from the past of other jurisdictions, that public services can use to improve programs and outcomes, but this is often neglected.”

Harnessing behavioural insights is offered fully online and self-paced, with information presented in interactive and engaging ways via Moodle LMS.

“The course is flexible so it can be balanced around work and other commitments, and participants will have the opportunity to bring problems from their work to discussions and assignments, for feedback.”

Overcoming biases and improving how governments use behaviour change

Dr Garivaldis said a better understanding of behavioural science was important because governments too often make avoidable human errors.

“This comes back to those biases. When you as a public sector leader are busy and under pressure you are prone to making the most assumptions about the state of events, and what is needed to address them.

“‘I know what the problem is and how to fix it’ is all too common, as is assuming that what you are doing is working without evaluating it.”

As Dr Garivaldis points out, public services responses to the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to long-term improvements in programs and policies, as the pandemic forced agencies to think and work differently.

“When we are in a situation where we are undergoing a major change, like COVID, that’s when we can change our habits because habits are linked to contexts and sequences which are no longer there. So, I think that many of the more efficient ways of working will stick because they are embedded in a new context.”

Dr Garivaldis said that behaviour change focused policies had shown their effectiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic

“With regard to COVID – you can’t rely on behavioural change alone, but you also can’t rely on vaccinations alone, you need to be able to recognise that there are advantages to applying behaviour change alongside other methods: it’s immediate, it works, and it is relatively inexpensive.”

“When we go about behaviour change in the right way, are selective about what we try to change, and focus on sustainable changes, then we can make a real difference.”

Harnessing behavioural insights begins on 11 October and runs for eight weeks. Find out more here.

The course commences with an overview of behavioural approaches to problem solving, definitions, uses, drivers and barriers to change. It continues by guiding participants through a practical framework for behaviour change project and program design, incorporating behaviour change tools and methods, to build confidence in applying behavioural insights. Participants will have the opportunity to engage with and discuss behaviour change processes in how they relate to relevant policy topics.

The course is available in both an assessed and unassessed version. Participants successfully completing the assessed stream will receive a Certificate of Completion or carry six credit points towards a Monash University Masters of Environment and Sustainability.

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