Brief book review – The Behavioural Insights Team, Annual Report 2017-2018

The Behavioural Insights Team, London, 66 pages.

The Annual Reports of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is always an interesting regulatory read at the start of the calendar year. Their 2017-2018 report, for example, gives insight into recent regulatory interventions in 31 countries. These range from tackling tuberculosis in Moldavia to strengthening the Met Police (the police force of Greater London) against cyber-attacks. In 2018, I wrote extensively about the use of insights from the behavioural sciences in regulatory practice on this blog. For those interested in this approach, I recommend reading those blog entries first.

Of specific interest about the BIT annual reports is that they show the development of this approach to regulation since 2010. Over the years, the BIT has been involved in close to 800 projects, including 400 randomised control trials. If you read their annual reports back-to-back, you get a perfect understanding of the areas where the use of behavioural insights has shown to be relatively easy and come with (almost) guaranteed success. You also get a good understanding of the areas where it is still in its infancy and where results are less certain.  

One of the examples in the 2017-2018 report that stood out to me is a novel intervention to help repeat offenders to make a fresh start away from crime. In a trial, a random sample of over 2,000 known repeat offenders in the West Midlands in the UK was sent either a handwritten card on their birthday that included details of support services available to prolific offenders, or a letter from the West Midlands Police on a random date which advertised the same service. It was found that repeat offenders were 56 per cent more likely to respond to the support if they got the handwritten birthday card. This simply because “People’s hopes and motivations are higher around ‘fresh start’ events such as birthdays”.

This example is illustrative in that not only it shows how insights from the behavioural sciences can make a world of difference in regulatory practice (and the report gives a range of other examples) but also that a less technocratic and more human-centred approach to regulation can help to achieve better regulatory outcomes. Such insights fit broader debates in regulatory scholarship and particularly those on people’s moral obligation to comply, which is a central theme in Tom Tyler’s regulatory classic: Why People Obey the Law (Yale University Press, 1990). I will discuss that book and other classic and contemporary ones that make up the canon of regulatory scholarship throughout the year.

Disclaimer In these brief book reviews, I discuss classic and contemporary books that make up the canon of regulatory scholarship. I focus on their guiding idea or core notions and aim to keep the reviews to around 500 words. Unfortunately, this implies I must sacrifice a considerable amount of detail from the books reviewed.

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