Behavioural Science Aotearoa

Behavioural Science Aotearoa (BSA) works to understand people better so we can make our justice system work for them. BSA uses evidence and research methods from social sciences to ensure policies and processes reflect the way people behave and make decisions. The team creates more accessible and culturally aware systems to improve outcomes for everyone who uses justice services in Aotearoa.

What is behavioural science?

Whether it’s supporting Police to submit documents for court, helping people stick to their bail conditions, or reducing offending in the first place, almost everything the justice sector does involves people making decisions.

We often expect people to respond in certain ways to laws, incentives or information without considering all the factors that can influence their response. These factors include understanding the rules, social norms (what everyone else is doing), cultural practice, and the way information is presented. Sometimes, a small change can have a big effect. For example, simplifying documents, using checklists, or sending text message reminders can all have a positive effect on how people behave.

Does behavioural science work?

International use of behavioural science is now widespread, with evidence that applying its principles can improve outcomes in many areas of public policy, including justice, health and the environment. Aotearoa New Zealand, as with every country, is unique and people will respond differently to changes. Our team uses evaluation methods to find out how well our solution designs work, and who they work best for.

What we do

The BSA team has four broad functions:

  • Understanding behaviour: Carrying out qualitative research and fieldwork and reviewing behavioural science literature.
  • Nudging: Applying relatively small tweaks to existing operational processes, such as letters, forms and text messages, to make them more effective in achieving their goals.
  • Advice: Providing advice on policy and service design, and their likely effect on behaviour.
  • Capability building: Providing training, tools and information to support others in applying behavioural insight principles to improve outcomes.

Our work

Below is an overview of some of the projects BSA is working on. You can read more about BSA's recent work in their newsletter.

BSA Newsletter March 2021  [PDF, 363 KB]

Self-help guides

Effective virtual meetings

“You’re on mute”, “I can’t see you”, …*stone silence*… Meetings have looked remarkably different since we started having so many of them virtually. Now virtual meetings are a staple of our working lives.

Yet, virtual meetings can be unproductive and well, awkward. In this guide we use behavioural science, the study of how people behave, to provide some principles about how to have virtual meetings. How do we connect with each other while online? What does the science of creativity say about how to brainstorm effectively? How do we avoid zoom fatigue? The answers to these questions are in this very guide.

Guide to effective virtual meetings [PDF, 308 KB]

Simplifying messages

Our justice system sends messages all the time, through letters, texts or posters. Whether the aim of the message is to help the reader understand information or encourage a specific action, having a message that is clear, easy to understand and quick to find will strengthen the effectiveness of the message. BSA’s guides outlines how to improve messages with five practical steps:

  1. Identify what you want your message to achieve (for example, inform, influence, call to act)
  2. Make your key points stand out
  3. Make your message easy for people to read
  4. Know who is sending your message and when
  5. Measure the effect of your message on behaviour outcomes

Guide to simplifying a message [PDF, 328 KB]

Guide to sending effective emails [PDF, 609 KB] 

Protection Order information

Protection Orders are formal legal documents and can be difficult to understand. The BSA team worked with stakeholders across the justice sector to develop a coversheet for Protection Orders, simplifying information for both respondents and applicants. The aim of the coversheet is to help respondents understand what’s expected of them and reduce accidental breaches, as well as inform applicants of their rights. The coversheet was a finalist in the 2021 Plain English awards.(external link)

Protection Order cover sheet for respondents [PDF, 548 KB]

Protection Order cover sheet for applicants [PDF, 560 KB]

Encouraging people to pay fines

At the end of 2020, there was $567 million worth of fines owed to the Ministry of Justice. Many people do not pay their fines on time because they simply forget. However, their behaviour can be influenced by prompts that make it easier for them to pay, or that trigger them to consider what future costs they can save by taking action to resolve their fines now.

We have written a number of reports about trials that have used nudging to encourage people to pay their fines. Some of the trials had significant results, including:

  • Changes to fines reminder letters, using a social norms message “The vast majority of people pay their fines. You are in the small minority that still has to pay” resulted in a marked increase in fine payments. The letters were estimated to result in an additional $300,000 repayment within 28 days of sending reminder letters, plus up to $1.7 million if people who make arrangements go on to pay in full each year.
  • Changes to the deputy registrar summons letter, including a diagram that explains where the person is in the fines process, was estimated to lead to $600,000 to $960,000 more in payments during the 28-day payment window. This excludes payments that are made through arrangements, so the real financial impact could be much bigger. In one year, it would also mean 6,700 to 10,200 more people would take an action to resolve their fine that prevents MoJ from taking further enforcement actions.
  • Sending a text message to people seven days before a fine becomes overdue was estimated to benefit 6,300 people each year, by helping them avoid additional fees worth $640,000.

The letters and text messages found to successfully improve fines collection have now been rolled out as BAU.

Messages in Police custody

Many people in Aotearoa don’t turn up for their court appearance. In the Hawkes Bay area, the figures are particularly high. Around 20% of people scheduled to appear in the Hastings District or Youth Court failed to appear between January 2019 and February 2020, compared to 9% nationally. Eastern Police estimate they spend six hours a day following up on Warrants to Arrest following failures to appear in court.

The BSA team worked with Police, people in Police custody, custody staff and cultural advisors to improve communication and connection with those in custody. We developed a colourful message to be attached to the custody walls that reads: “Show up at court. Sort out your stuff. Get back to whānau. MANA”. The message uses the symbol of an unfolding fern to symbolise strengthening mana. There’s also a blackboard that allows participants to express what mana means to them.

Messaging used while participants are in Police custody can have a significant effect on behaviour. Participants receive a lot of information at the start and end of the custody process, but very little during the several hours spent in Police custody.

Academic Reference Network

As part of our commitment to evidence-based practice and contributing to behavioural science in the unique New Zealand context we established an advisory network of experienced New Zealand and Australian based researchers and academics.

Our network supports us by providing guidance and advice on the theory behind our interventions and the methodologies and analysis we use to test to see whether or not they worked. We also look for opportunities to collaborate with the network members and find ways to apply their own research to the Justice context in New Zealand.

The current members of our network are:

Associate Professor Carla Houkaumau (external link)

Dr Anne Macaskill  (external link)

Professor Nathan Berg (external link)

Dr Julia Ioane (external link)

Dr Jan Feld (external link)

Dr Marcos Pelenur (external link)

Dr Sarah Hayward (external link)

Dr Alex Gyani (external link)

Professor Ian Lambie (Chair) (external link)

We are grateful to the knowledge, perspectives, and time our network provides.

Get in touch

Reach the team at BehaviouralScienceAotearoa@justice.govt.nz

Behavioural Science Aotearoa Logo

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