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India’s behavioral science policy unit – Challenges and wayforward

Two recent stories that appeared in Indian media suggest that the Indian Central (Federal) Government is looking to set up a behavioral sciences policy unit under the Niti Ayog, a Government of India policy think-tank established by the Narendra Modi government.

This news item that appeared in The Economic Times  suggests that the government has tied up with The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to set up the unit.

There have been several examples of Behavioral Insights units, starting with the one in the UK cabinet office. The Behavioral Insights Team is now partly owned by the cabinet office and calls itself a social purpose company. 

Niranjan Rajyadhyaksha of Mint had written this compelling piece on why the Modi government needs a Nudge unit. The Indian Prime Minister himself on occasions alluded to the behavioral nature of some of the problems, particularly sanitation.

Needless to say there are several advantages of such a unit. This well written editorial in Mint takes a more balanced view to such a unit. Incidentally, 4 of the problems outlined in the opening paragraph of the piece are problem areas Final Mile has experience using Behavioral Sciences.

The piece also points out some potential limitations of such a unit. There are areas where a nudge simply is not good enough, behavioral scientists themselves are not immune to bias and the fact that India is complex. We though believe that the complexity argument is over stretched. There is diversity in every country. Successive governments have been making policies  accounting for the complexity. Our experience in general has been that there are more similarities than there are differences. Dilip Soman, a well know behavioral economist suggests that “Complexity makes it more likely that soft interventions will work better than other options”.  A good next step  would be to recommend such a policy unit at the state level as well.

As pioneers in the field of applying behavioral science to solving real world problems, this is highly encouraging news. There are some challenges such a unit needs to navigate and, based on our experience, these are some of those. We understand that most of these if not all, would have been taken in to consideration by the decision makers.

  1. There is an inherent danger in assuming that a particular behavioral science principle is universally valid. There have been cases where using a principle blindly have backfired. There was a recent experiment where a company used social norms with a view to increase savings by it’s employees. It proved counter productive. In context testing is therefore key.

  2. One of the big crisis that hit the world of behavioral sciences and psychology is where many ‘successful’ experiments could not be replicated. This was particularly true of social priming. This paper co-authored by one of the senior employees at Final Mile has more detail  . There is a need to generate strong evidence before a policy or an intervention can be deployed. Rigorous testing is vital. As Richard Thaler, widely considered the father of behavioral economics says “You can’t have evidence based policy without evidence”

  3. Complex and wicked problems need a multi-disciplinary approach. A nudge unit team needs to bring in diverse skills. One that if filled with Behavioral Scientists may not be the best approach. In our experience, integrating design thinking with behavioral sciences can lead to powerful results. Equally important are measurement and evaluation experts

  4. Navigating through the government system and particularly the famed Indian bureaucracy is going to call for incredible amount of patience and tact.  

  5. Establishing value of such a unit is obviously critical. At a conceptual level, all this makes sense but government officials and ministers are keen on quick results. There are realities of electoral politics. A good approach would be take one or two areas and demonstrate value rather than trying to spread thin across ministries. Peter Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation, Office of Science and Technology policy in the white house made some observations on this subject at the recently held Behavioral Science summit. It is far easier to take life sciences in to application. It’s tangible and we have experience and set systems. Taking behavioral science to people is not the same.  Framing results and writing for policy makers is quite different from writing an academic paper. And that working with existing programs is a much better way to overcome Status Quo bias. Launching new programs may not be the best way to go. 

  6. Libertarian Paternalism is a phrase that Prof. Richard Thaler and Case Sunstein coined. It might sound like an oxymoron, but it isn’t. In their own words “The idea of libertarian paternalism might seem to be an oxymoron, but it is both possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice. Often people’s preferences are ill-formed, and their choices will inevitably be influenced by default rules, framing effects, and starting points. In these circumstances, a form of paternalism cannot be avoided. Equipped with an understanding of behavioral findings of bounded rationality and bounded self-control, libertarian paternalists should attempt to steer people’s choices in welfare-promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice.”  However, such a unit is likely to come under criticism from both the right and left of the political spectrum. The left would argue that you cannot call poverty a behavioral problem, the right might term this a “nanny state” initiative. These are extreme arguments but ones that have been made several times. Considering the possibility of sensationalism by the Indian media, such a unit needs to be prepared to effectively deal with criticism.

Ultimately, the success of this unit depends on government support and patience. The mandate needs to come from the highest level, like the White House Social and behavioral science team where President Obama issued an Executive order “that directs all Federal agencies to use insights from the behavioral sciences to make government programs easier to access, more user-friendly, and more effective” 

Obama also notes that “Adopting the insights of behavioral science will  help bring our government into the 21st century in a wide range of ways – from delivering services more efficiently and effectively; to accelerating transition to a clean energy economy; to helping workers find better jobs, gain access to educational opportunity, and lead longer, healthier lives”

The Indian unit could do with a similar endorsement from Prime Minister Modi.

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