5by5: Public Policy and Behavioral Insights with Sasha Tregebov

A 5by5 conversation about Public Policy and Behavioral Insights with Sasha Tregebov, Senior Advisor at Behavioural Insights Team

Interview by Twisha Shah-Brandenburg and Thomas Brandenburg

“Having a grounding in core concepts of behavioral science would be valuable to virtually all policy makers. In particular, it would enable better anticipation of the challenges that policies face in implementation.”  —Sasha Tregebov

Question 1
Behavioral insights has made headway informing public policy in certain parts of the world. What can be learned from these applications for organizations that are still in skeptical or in consideration mode? (or how can you influence organizations to accept different ways of problem solving?)

Presenting case studies related to issues that are a priority for organization may be the best way to build the case for developing a broader interest in developing and applying behavioral insights capabilities. For example, if an organization is struggling to recruit a diverse set of job candidates, one could demonstrate how behavioral insights methods could help develop and test new recruitment messages and methods. By demonstrating value in a specific, priority issue, it may raise natural questions around “where else could these approaches be applied.”


Question 2
What are the ethical considerations that go into your planning process? How do you apply a human centered approach to organizations that haven’t always been traditionally been transparent or planned policy keeping user needs in mind?

At the Behavioral Insights Team, we follow a fairly formal process of ethics review and approval for each project we do. This review includes ethical considerations related to qualitative (user) research and trialing of the interventions we develop. This ethics process follows human subjects research protocols and where we identify significant ethical considerations we partner with universities to go through a Institutional Review Board process.

More broadly, we have found a high level of interest in organizations adopting more human-centered approaches (at least philosophically). The challenges tend to arise more from capacity, capability and timing limitations to actually getting out and engaging users.


Question 3
Would you be willing to share instances of failure? What lessons could designers / policy makers learn from applications that didn’t work?

We test almost all of the interventions we design through randomized controlled trials to develop clear causal evidence around impact. A significant minority of our trials produce a “null” result, showing no statistical impact compared to the status quo. We do not consider these results “failures,” as they help us understand what ideas do not work before they are scaled. The learning that derives from these trials is substantial — organizations don’t just learn about what does not work, they also gain experience running randomized controlled trials, enabling further experimentation and learning.


Question 4
If behavioral insights became part of every policy makers’ toolkit what are some best practices that could be leveraged?

Having a grounding in core concepts of behavioral science would be valuable to virtually all policy makers. In particular, it would enable better anticipation of the challenges that policies face in implementation. By also developing a competency in experimental evaluation (e.g. design and use of randomized controlled trials), policy makers would be able to identify and capture a wide range of opportunities for empirically testing ideas before they are scaled.


Question 5
What are some untapped areas / sectors were behavioral insights can be used to help shape policy?

Behavioral insights is increasingly being applied across policy areas. After earlier success in more transactional operations (e.g. making payments, applying for programs, compliance processes), there is increasing focus and success in more complex interventions with more ambitious goals (e.g. increasing student attainment, child protection case management, etc.). However, I think that behavioral insights has only scratched the surface in all of these areas. In particular, there is a lot of untapped potential in areas related to public health and wellness (e.g. healthier eating).

Interested in this topic? Register to be part of a larger community at the Design Intersections conference in Chicago May 24-25, 2018.