Before you read what Jayden has to say, let me start by introducing her. Jayden and I went to boarding school together. I am always struck by her ability to back her words with action in environments which are heavy on “discourse” but lacking in doers. She might also be one of those rare people who you gain more respect for the more you spend time with them. She’s now a fourth-year undergraduate student at McGill University in Montréal, Canada and she spent her summer working on policy and data analytics at the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change in Toronto.
I entered my summer job with the government well aware of the stereotypes of government employees: inefficient, overcompensated, free-riding on the tax-payer’s dollars, slow to adapt to technological change. My four months working at the Ministry of the Environment both challenged and confirmed these expectations. In this post, I’ll focus on two innovative approaches to public policy I was exposed to in the Canadian public service.
Since I first heard about the field of behavioral economics I’ve been interested in how it can be applied to environmental policy. After all, daily individual actions directly impact the health of the environment such as littering, using plastic bags, or driving cars. Is there a way that we can prompt individuals to be more reflective, and think more considerately about their actions, so that they can make better choices? Can we encourage people to change their habits?
Some recent research suggests that we can. A study by Ohtomo and Ohnuma found that when the cashier at a supermarket asks customers “do you need a plastic bag?” or, “would you like to purchase a plastic bag?”, the number of customers who accept the plastic bag decreased substantially. This non-coercive and non-monetary intervention achieves a positive outcome, and entails virtually no financial burden for the company involved. Noble Peace Prize winner Richard Thaler calls this phenomenon of encouraging people to make certain decisions “nudging.”
The Ministry of the Environment has historically been a regulator in the traditional sense. If you pollute a river with a toxic chemical, you get a fine as punishment. In the USA, the conspirators in the Volkswagen emissions scandal received multi-year prison sentences. In the eyes of the regulator, harming the environment should be treated as a crime. However, many companies will simply pay the fine, face the PR hit (if their actions make it to media), and continue business as usual. Now policy makers are thinking more deeply about human psychology and economic incentives to understand how we can avoid harms to the environment in the first place. To see this new way of thinking about changing human behavior being discussed in the government was a pleasant surprise.
The second spark of innovation I experienced in my summer job was the application of business intelligence and analytical tools to understand the impacts of government programs and policies. Often, people specializing in policy and data work independently from one another, separated by their respective affinities for qualitative and quantitative data. However, a lot of software is made to make impact analysis relatively fast and simple for people with non-technical backgrounds. I was initially hired to work on policy, but I spent the majority of my summer working with mass amounts of data to analyze and visualize program outcomes in a program called Power BI. With a new government in office, they wanted an evidence-driven report to demonstrate the impacts of a $7.5 million-dollar fund spent on grassroots level environmental programs across the province. I think I was given this task because my supervisors believed that all young people are coding wizards (I was at least 17 years younger than the median age employee), but also because they truly want to train policy-oriented people in data science and analytics. We have all heard of government programs and policies that have failed because they weren’t based on evidence, and they weren’t continually evaluated to determine if they were achieving successful results. Business analytic software is one way to get insights into true impact, and will can contribute to more informed decisions.
The two innovations I observed and experienced were refreshing and encouraging, but I also learned to keep my expectations realistic. The government is a slow institution. Innovative ideas often start small, at a low level, and it takes a long time for new ways of thinking to be broadly accepted and adopted. Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point wrote about the 150 rule. He suggests that once there are over 150 employees, the institution becomes less socially functional, and efficient. As one of over one thousand employees working in an organization this summer, I can attest to the difficulty of feeling like your work is contributing. But, I found that in an institution dedicated to a particular issue – the health of the environment- there is a certain amount of genuine concern and passion that drives people’s work ethic. I’m not sure that this intrinsic motivation to work for the greater good is found in every organization, and it allowed me to see beyond the attributes of government that made me skeptical in the first place.
Thanks Jayden! As always, you’re off the beaten path and have come back with some thought-provoking insights. Policy can often be the art of converting individual actions into a collective good so I find this idea of combining habit-building and “nudging” to be really interesting. I hope the reader got as much out of it as I did.