Sunday, November 29, 2015

Just a nudge. Why Malcolm Turnbull is embracing behavioural economics

There's something odd about the urinals at the Netherlands airport. Each one has what appears to be a fly embossed in the porcelain right at the point designers want men to hit.

Normally pretty bad at aiming with precision, men can't resist trying to hit it and wash it away. So much so, that adorning the urinals helped reduce "spillage" 44 per cent.

Cass Sunstein loves telling the story. In Australia to help prime minister Turnbull launch his own behavioural economics unit, Sunstein used to run the US office of information and regulatory affairs under President Obama. It was known as Obama's 'Nudge Unit', for good reason. Sunstein co-authored the book Nudge, and is an expert in using behavioural economics to change behaviour.

Three years ago Australia's present cabinet secretary Arthur Sinodinos ridiculed the idea in a press release entitled "Nanny state wants to nudge you!". But that was when Gillard was in power. Turnbull likes nudges. Their best selling point is that they are cheap.

Sunstein explained on Monday that in the US poor children were eligible for free school meals so long as their parents signed up. But whether because many were too busy or too embarrassed millions of children missed out.

So the authorities allowed schools to automatically enrol any child they thought might be eligible. Parents who wished could still take their children out.

The result was an extra 12 million children obtaining meals to which they were legally entitled...

>"It was just a nudge," he said. "We switched the default."

Sunstein also tackled low college enrolments among low-income students by sending each a text message just before the deadline. Low-income enrolments jumped 5.7 per cent.

The ideas don't just come out of his head. They are the result of incredibly large real world trials. When the US Internal Revenue Service wanted to increase the honesty of businesses reporting sales it tried adding an extra signature box to the top of the form. Reported sales boomed.

Critics say that nudges engineer outcomes, but so too do badly designed forms, such as ones that don't have signature boxes at the top. It's just that they do it thoughtlessly.

In Australia the Tax Office has been doing it thoughtfully for half a decade.

If you are late paying your tax this year you'll get a letter that says: "When you pay this debt you will be joining the millions of Australians who pay their tax to support our country and Australia's way of life."

The words weren't chosen at random. They were the result of real time experiments trying out different combinations of words on millions of taxpayers.

This year the letters are in different coloured inks: first blue, then amber (signalling a warning) then red. Cheryl-Lea Field, the deputy commissioner in charge of debt recovery, says this simple change has pushed up the number of recipients paying within 30 days from 30.3 to 36.8 per cent. The number making partial payments has jumped from 44 to 50 per cent.

And she's sending reminder texts to perennial late payers. The most effective include the taxpayer's name ("Peter") and arrive just before the payment is due. Last year an extra 65,000 paid by the due date, at a cost of only 9c per text.

The office has even has discovered the power of "thank you" texts. Late payers feel their effort has been appreciated and pay more quickly next time.

Her phone staff no longer use inflexible scripts. They used to have to ask "can you pay today" even after the caller had made it quite clear they couldn't. Now they are allowed to listen and help draw up payment plans.

There's even an online calculator to help late payers draw up plans themselves. And it'll soon come with gentle warnings, pointing out where, in the view of the software, the plan could be too optimistic.

In September President Obama signed an executive order requiring all US agencies to make use of behavioural insights. NSW premier Mike Baird has set up his own behavioural insights unit using staff and ideas borrowed from the British PM David Cameron. And now Malcolm Turnbull's on board. On one level they are doing no more than requiring agencies to think about how they interact with us. On another they are asking agencies to manipulate us.

It's something we're used to: advertisers have done it for years. Turnbull wants to even the score.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald