Knowledge Transfer

Knowledge Transfer: New insights in policy making and implementation

The first such experiment was targeted to improve public recycling in three shopping centres of the Link REIT, namely Heng On Commercial Centre, Yu Chui Shopping Centre and Tsz Wan Shan Shopping Centre.

The second experiment aimed to encourage student residents to use the stairs instead of elevators, for the sake of health benefits.

Public policy-making affects the behaviour of large numbers of people, sometimes millions of them. This important task, however, is often left to bureaucrats and politicians, who may have little in-depth understanding of how individuals actually behave. Expertise from the fields of the Behavioural Sciences and Psychology has seldom been taken into account when designing policy. This ill-informed policy-making process places limits on what governments can achieve, and how they can bring about changes in behaviour amongst targeted citizens.

Some people recognise these problems, and have tried to address them in the past few years. Recent work in the USA and EU has explored the role of "behavioural insights (BIs)" in contributing to better targeted and more effective policy solutions. In Hong Kong, the Laboratory for Public Management and Policy (LaMP) at CityU is the first research unit dedicated to applying BIs to public policy studies, and to designing and testing a new form of policy intervention ("nudging") through experimental methods.

Behavioural insights and "nudging"

Traditionally, policymakers have often relied on assumptions drawn from neo-classical economic theory. For example, they have often assumed that people are rational self-interest maximisers, who only respond to price incentives. However, extant behavioural research shows that individuals' behaviour is shaped by a number of additional psychological and environmental factors. From a policy perspective, identifying the true reasons underpinning people's behaviour and their decisions is an essential prerequisite for effective policy-making. For instance, if relative prices are the primary concern when people make purchase decisions on electric appliances, then conventional price incentives (e.g., subsidies) could constitute an appropriate remedy for the adoption of energy-efficient technologies. If, however, people's decisions are indeed affected by other fundamental aspects of human nature (such as "choice overload" and "default bias"), it would be more effective to take such behavioural features into account when designing policy.

BIs comprise knowledge and analysis of the processes underlying how humans behave and make decisions in everyday life. These BIs can serve as inputs to policy processes that complement traditional policy approaches (i.e., regulations, incentives and information requirements). BIs can also contribute to the design of new forms of policy intervention. The most prominent example of a behavioural intervention technique is "nudging", which is a "soft", easy tool that modifies the choice architecture by directing people towards better choices and types of behaviour without using bans or other expensive, time-consuming alternatives (e.g., fees and subsidies). Governments have applied nudging to a wide range of important policy domains, such as tax compliance, food waste, driving offences, obesity and healthcare.

Policy experiments with internships

Over the past two years, LaMP has been the first BI-oriented research unit in Hong Kong. This unit has systemically introduced and applied the concepts of BIs and nudging in public policy studies. At the heart of LaMP's efforts is its use of experimental methods. Most policy research is based on observational methods. However, experiments in fields such as health care show that randomised controlled trials can provide invaluable evidence to produce better and more rigorous outcomes. Similar experiments in public policy are crucial, because these experiments use control groups – or portions of the subject populations to whom the policy intervention is not applied. It might sound like a strange or even wasteful idea to monitor such non-intervention groups, but this is the only way to exclude confounding factors, and to know whether a change in behaviour is actually due to the policy intervention being tested.

Two field experiments have been conducted by LaMP's student interns to test the effectiveness of an approach to nudging called the "point-of-decision (POD) prompt". This prompt involves tailored information that is positioned at appropriate times and places (i.e., the point of decision or behaviour) to stimulate people's deliberation on their subsequent behaviour, before they act in an habitual or "mindless" manner. Compared to conventional approaches to public education, the POD prompt is particularly useful for altering habitual or unintentional behaviour.

The first such experiment was targeted to improve public recycling in local shopping malls. This experiment was conducted from March to May 2015, in collaboration with three shopping centres of the Link REIT, namely Heng On Commercial Centre, Yu Chui Shopping Centre and Tsz Wan Shan Shopping Centre. The nudges involved various kinds of information positioned on or near garbage bins: positive messages giving directions and distances to the recycling facilities, and negative messages telling people not to put recyclable materials into garbage bins. The results showed that there was a net increase of 20% in the average weekly amount of recyclable materials collected in the areas after the interventions were installed.

The second experiment was co-organised with the Student Residence Office of CityU. This experiment aimed to encourage student residents to use the stairs instead of elevators, for the sake of health benefits. The test was implemented from April to May 2016 at four residence halls of CityU. Health messages were posted that said "Climbing 1 step of stairs extends your lifespan by 4 seconds!" These messages were presented as coming from various sources, which had varying levels of credibility. The residents' use of the stairs or the elevators were recorded by view-from-top video cameras, and counted by automated people-counting software. The preliminary result showed that the numbers and proportions of stair users were significantly raised by the nudge.

Implementing experiments with internships is an innovative LaMP programme. Unlike some other internships, in which students are only asked to provide assistance with routine and tedious office tasks, the interns in LaMP's projects were able to benefit from involvement in the whole research process – from design, to implementation, to policy recommendation. The interns needed to make hypotheses, and then test whether their suggestions were effective in reality. The learning outcomes of these projects were promising. As student intern Keith CHOI said, "What you learn from textbooks could be unrealistic. Only through experimentation can we know whether the idea really works".