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.
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.
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.
The BSA team has four broad functions:
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.
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]
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:
When a person fails to appear at court, a warrant can be issued for their arrest, and their court case must be rescheduled. This means the person, their whanau, and victims have to wait longer for an outcome.
We worked with the Māori Wardens and Eastern District Police on a new initiative called Whāriki Haumaru, to encourage people with Warrants to Arrest to attend court. During the initiative, two Māori Wardens made phone calls to people with active warrants, reminding them of the Warrant to Arrest and asking them to attend court. When calling people, the wardens used a script that we designed together, blending behavioural science ideas (such as procedural justice and implementation intentions) and Te Ao Māori principles (such as whanaungatanga, pono and manaakitanga).
There are about 900 Māori Wardens in Aotearoa who volunteer their time to support their communities. Māori wardens have strong connections with the local community and are able to build rapport and communicate effectively. Our results suggest that when people are contacted by Māori Wardens, they are more likely to attend court.
The trial lasted six months and the results are positive. Those who were contacted by the Wardens were 29 percentage points more likely to make a voluntary appearance compared with people who could not be contacted (47% made a voluntary appearance, compared to 18% for those who were not contacted).
As well as reducing the number of people arrested by Police, this initiative has reduced police time spent on processing, transportation and paperwork relating to Warrants to Arrest.
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)
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:
The letters and text messages found to successfully improve fines collection have now been rolled out as BAU.
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.
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:
We are grateful to the knowledge, perspectives, and time our network provides.
Reach the team at BSA@corrections.govt.nz
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