5by5: Public Policy and Behavioral Insights with Sarah Kovar

A 5by5 Conversation about Public Policy and Behavioral Insights with Sarah Kovar, Strategy Consultant at Deloitte  

Interview by Twisha Shah-Brandenburg and Thomas Brandenburg


“I’d say what is most helpful for me, is continually learning how others have applied Behavioral Insights. The IRS, OECD, EU, and World Bank are my go-to.” —Sarah Kovar


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?)

It’s been extremely helpful to have a Behavioral Insights 101 (or 201) conversation where we level set on what Behavioral Insights (or Behavioral Design) is and how it’s been applied across the globe. It’s also helpful to find advocates within the organization who know how to apply Behavioral Design specifically to their organization. We often will walk through specific examples of how a similar problem was solved in another country or within their own organization: “this was successful in the UK with the same issue that you are facing, and they had x, y, z success.” 10 years ago, there were only a handful of folks who had even heard of this being applied to government, and now there are almost two hundred organizations applying Behavioral Insights to public policy around the world! So there’s always a new example or insight to share.


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?

There are quite a few examples in the Behavioral Insights literature that suggest that transparency is a really strong behavioral design technique! One of my favorite examples of a city government using this is at the Lab@DC. Two great ways that they have increased transparency and citizen engagement has been through their “Form-a-Palooza” and through the use of an online project platform. At Form-a-Palooza, the Lab@DC invited the community to work with government agencies to redesign government forms. A few months after the designs were finalized, the community was invited back to see how their forms were now being used! The Lab@DC also uses their online project platform as a way for the community to understand what projects the DC government is tackling and how they plan to test the work.


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

Where do I start! One of my big lessons learned is setting up the experimental design. Often times, people are overly excited about applying as many behavioral design elements as possible. But then you get a kitchen-sync concocted design, which is a data scientist’s worst nightmare. I was recently working on an experiment where I came in after the designs had been finalized, and was there for the evaluation portion of the test. We realized that it would be nearly impossible to evaluate behavioral responses to specific elements included in each of the prototypes because of the overlaps. You get results on what works, but you don’t get to learn why it works.


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

I’d say what is most helpful for me, is continually learning how others have applied Behavioral Insights. The IRS, OECD, EU, and World Bank are my go-to.


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

It may sound a little dark, but I believe that there will be a need for Behavioral Insights to be understood by diplomacy and intelligence agencies. As we see more threats to diplomacy and national security through the use of AI and bots, the next level of those threats could come from coupling them with the behavioral sciences.

On a lighter note, combining Behavioral Insights with AI can be used for good. It can help humans and machines work better together. My colleague, Jim Guszcza wrote a wonderful piece that digs deep into that intersection.


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