Interview with Joanne Reinhard, Senior Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team

ScienceForWork shares the contribution of scientific research  in the field of organizational psychology and personnel management with HR professionals, managers and consultants. Evidence-Based Management is the driving vision of ScienceForWork.

We would like to give you the opportunity to introduce yourself to our readers: who is Joanne Reinhard?

Joanne ReinhardI started studying Economics and Psychology in college, and realized that these two disciplines have much to learn from each other. I ended up taking a Master in Cognitive and Decision Science, and I joined the Behavioral Insight Team once I graduated. The nice element was that I could apply what I learned in academia, since there was a strong link between theory and practice. When I joined the BIT I started working with the Labour Market Team on projects dedicated to unemployment and to how to support job seekers better.

What is the Behavioral Insights Team and what is its mission? In which areas do you operate?

The Behavioral Insights Team is a social purpose company which aims to spread the knowledge and use of behavioral science in policy making. We try to make public services more cost-effective and easier for citizens to navigate through, improve outcomes by introducing a more realistic model of human behaviour to policy, and, wherever possible, to enable people to make ‘better choices for themselves’. We are now more than 60 people, with offices in London, Sidney and New York and we are collaborating internationally with other governments and companies.

What role does science play in your approach to public policy?

Science helps us in understanding which solutions are the most impactful. We follow the evidence and the numbers, increasing our chances of success. We try to bring an evidence-based approach to policy making.

As human behavior is unpredictable, we need evidences to do our job rigorously. Sometime what you expect will happen, but other times a very counterintuitive effect could take place.

For example in one of our trials, we tested the effect of including on a high traffic webpage on GOV.UK different messages that encourage people to join the NHS Organ Donor Register. Once prepared the different types of messages to display on the webpage, we all voted for the one that we thought could have had the biggest impact: most of us (including one very renowned behavioral economist) thought that the best results would have been achieved by the message with a picture of people smiling. Counterintuitively, not only this message did not rank first in improving the baseline of people registering for organ donation, but actually made people less likely to sign up! The best-performing message drew on ideas of reciprocity and fairness by asking people “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.”

Why is scientific literature the starting point when planning an intervention?

We want to know what has already been tried before, and what worked in other contexts, to see if we can apply that to our policy challenges here in the UK in a useful way. We try to look to analogous challenges and see if something that worked in a similar area can be helpful in a new one. To do this, you have to go through the academic literature.

Then, we go on with on-field research: we interview the people that are involved in the service that we want to improve by organizing focus groups or by observing them on their work day.

What is the advantage of using a scientific method in discovering what works and what doesn’t?

Randomized control trials (RCTs) are the key for us to clearly demonstrate the impact of our interventions. Thanks to the presence of a control group we can say “this is what happened thanks to what we have done, this is what would have happened if we hadn’t done anything”. A large enough sample and the randomization allow us to be sure that the observed effect was due to our intervention and not to other factors given by the surrounding context.

Do you think that this approach would also be feasible for other kinds of companies? Do you know about other companies that do so?

Google and their People Analytics team are collaborating with many academics. General Motors is also running RCTs in collaboration with Universities.  Many companies are now thinking about implementing People Analytics to study people’s behavior in their organization and evaluating the impact of their interventions.

I participated in the Re:Work conference hosted by Google, where we discussed the use of analytics and data to predict, understand and improve people’s behavior at work. The debate was focused on how the collaboration between academics and practitioner can lead to a better future  for both organizations and their employees.

EAST is the acronym that describes your approach: what does it stand for?

In our approach to Behavioral Science, if we want get people to make better choices for themselves, we focus on making those choices Easier for them, more Attractive, we try to use Social levers, and plan a Timely intervention. This is our brainstorming framework to come up with solutions for the issue at hand.

What are your personal favourite top 3 results that the Behavioral Insights Team achieved?

Well, my personal favourite was what we observed in the organ donation trial, which I already discussed before. The results were impressive: if the best performing message were to be used over the whole year, it would lead to approximately 96,000 extra registrations completed, compared with the control condition.

In another project we helped job-seekers to go through their customer journey at job centers, reducing the number of their paperwork and increasing the amount of personal interactions with the job coach. We also helped them creating their “implementation intentions”, which is an academic way of saying “making a plan”, where they specified the when, the where and the how of their future plans. We trained the job coaches to the most effective behavioral interventions in order to implement everything effectively. We found that people that went through this new journey at job centers were employed faster than people who participated to the old one. The partner we worked with has now rolled this out across the entire UK.

Lately we have started working with police forces, and we wanted to see if we could help increasing the number of successful applications to the police from black and minority ethnic communities (BME).  These people seem to fall out of the hiring process earlier compared to people from the non-minority groups. We adjusted the reminder email that applicants see before taking an online test of their situational judgement, making the tone friendlier and prompting candidates to consider what becoming a police officer would mean to them and their community. This simple intervention, at no additional cost to the recruitment process, managed to increase the probability that a BME applicant passes this stage by 50 per cent, effectively closing the gap in performance between BME and non-BME applicants. Of course, this is just one step in the application process. Over time, we will be able to measure what impact it has upon final recruitment levels.

Thank you Joanne for showing how Behavioural Sciences and experiments inside organizations can help in making more cost-effective, helpful and accountable decisions to improve people’s lives at work.

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