Almost all government policies are aimed at behavioural change. The traditional government instruments often assume that people are conscious, rational decision-makers. However, the behavioural sciences teach us that this perspective of people is incomplete. The government can design more effective policies and serve its citizens better by applying behavioural insights. The behavioural sciences are therefore an emerging discipline within the government, alongside more established disciplines such as law, economics, public administration and communication science.
There has been interest in applying behavioural insights in the Netherlands for some time. Interest in the insights from the behavioural sciences and their application in policymaking has gradually grown within the Dutch government since 2004. For example, the Ministry of Defence trained and deployed the first psychological operations unit in Afghanistan in 2004, and the behavioural change team at the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration's began work in 2009.
The Netherlands Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) is increasingly emphasising the importance of applying insights from the behavioural sciences in policymaking. In the reports 'De menselijke beslisser' (2009) (‘The Human Decision-maker’), 'Met kennis van gedrag beleid maken' (2014) (‘Making policy with behavioural knowledge’) and 'Eigen schuld' (2016) (‘Own Fault’), the WRR argues that the image of humans as conscious, calculating, rational decision-makers is incomplete, inefficient and ineffective. Taking a more realistic perspective of people will not only result in an more effective and efficient policy, it will also offer the government new opportunities for influencing the behaviour of citizens and businesses by, for example, intervening in the choice architecture. In the WRR’s report ‘Weten is nog geen doen: een realistisch perspectief op redzaamheid’ ‘Knowing isn’t doing: a realistic perspective on life skills’) published in 2017, the WRR recommended that policy should be based on a realistic assessment of citizens' ability to act.
The year 2014 marked a breakthrough in the application of behavioural insights in the Netherlands. Besides the WRR, two other advisory councils have issued reports advising the government to use behavioural insights in the entire policy process. In response to these reports, the government expressed the expectation that the stronger application of behavioural insights would make the government more effective and efficient. It has been agreed that all ministries will experiment with applying behavioural insights to various policy themes. This has prompted many ministries, implementing bodies and supervisory authorities to set up small expertise teams or knowledge networks on behaviour.
The application of insights from the behavioural sciences, in short behavioural insights, is often considered equivalent to the use of nudges. This is unfair. Nudging is only a partial aspect of what the behavioural sciences have to offer. Significant added value will be created if attention is systematically paid to the application of behavioural insights in policymaking, including in the traditional policy instruments, such as legislation, financial incentives and the provision of information. The government’s response in 2014 discussed in detail the distinction between the broader application of behavioural insights and nudges as a partial aspect of the latter. You can find the relevant passages here.
From 2014, collaboration has also been sought across departmental boundaries. A milestone was achieved in 2014 with the foundation of the Behavioural Insights Network Netherlands (BIN NL), the behavioural network, in which all ministries participate to share knowledge and experiences. In 2017, BIN NL published the report ‘A Wealth of Behavioural Insights’ providing an update on the application of behavioural insights in central government and the results.
Both the 2017 and 2019 editions of ‘A Wealth of Behavioural Insights’ contain many examples of how effectiveness and efficiency gains can be made in the implementation and supervision of policy by applying behavioural insights. These are mostly small cost-effective changes in communication, for example, in letters, emails or forms, which have small to medium-size effects. In the case of large quantities, substantial savings and improvements can certainly be made in the provision of public services. In order to increasingly achieve similar savings and improvements in implementation and supervision, BIN NL offers support by pooling experiences and methodological knowledge.
The application of behavioural insights can have considerable added value not just in the final phase of a policy cycle, but also at an early stage in the policy cycle: in the problem analysis and in the choice of a particular policy instrument. In practice, the application of behavioural insights in policymaking still trails behind implementation, supervision and communication. This can be explained by factors, such as time pressure, routine behaviour and a historically strong focus on financial and legal incentives. It will take some time and require room for experimentation to perform a behavioural analysis and to test interventions at the start of the policy cycle. BIN NL promotes the application of behavioural insights in policymaking by putting it on internal agendas, holding peer reviews and sharing best practices.
‘Rijk aan gedragsinzichten’ (‘A Wealth of Behavioural Insights’), Behavioural Insights Network Netherlands, 2019.
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