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ABC: Argentina, behavioural insights and change management

El profesor de la Escuela de Negocios analizó la posibilidad de transformar las estrategias de management de los gobiernos a través de la implementación de la ciencia del comportamiento.

Por Jonatan Ol Beun

This article was originally published on Apolitical.

This article is written by OL Beun, former Director for Capability Building and Innovation for the Government Lab of Argentina. Currently, he is a Professor of Innovation and Behavioural Design at Torcuato Di Tella University and Visiting Professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina.

Your day starts early. You use the commuting time to read some emails and make a list of all the things you want to do during your day at work. You arrive. Little by little, the office starts to crowd with your co-workers. You are asked to jump in last-minute to help as a facilitator in a workshop. Before finishing you ask the participants if they would apply the methodologies in their roles. “This is great and I’ve learnt a lot but the context I work in won’t allow it”. You have heard this answer hundreds of times before.

You are late for an important meeting with a partner. They are working on something that you know another government team is also doing, yet they are reluctant to collaborate. You (seemingly) teleport yourself to another meeting with lawyers of your area. Testing the prototype your team has designed with citizens won’t be possible due to legal implications. Red tape and bureaucracy win again.

You watch the clock. It’s 7.30 pm. As you are leaving the office, you receive an email that you read on your phone. It’s from a participant of a workshop from one month ago. She successfully used a tool you taught at the course and her team is excited about this new methodology. She thanks you. You smile.

If you work in the public sector trying to foster a culture of innovation in government, I bet this routine will sound familiar. As the former Director for Capability Building and Innovation of the Government Lab of Argentina (LABgobar), I have experienced how messy government transformation can be and tried diverse tools to ease the journey.

One thing I’ve come to realise is how much potential there is for us to craft more effective change management strategies by using behavioural science, and prevent flaws in the delivery of services by understanding how people truly make decisions. I believe transforming government is ultimately about changing people’s behaviour, therefore behavioural science can be of great contribution to this mission.

Behavioural science to assess, plan and implement a transformation strategy

In early 2017, together with the National Institute of Public Administration (INAP), we launched the Design Academy for Public Policy, a unit within the LABgobar that aimed to foster an innovation culture in the government’s digital transformation through developing innovation capacities in the civil service. When we started, the first question we had — and one that many of you probably also asked yourselves — was "how do we start?"

First of all, we needed a better understanding of the civil servants’ capacity to innovate. Are public servants aware of different innovation methodologies? Do they apply them? Do they have access to training in public innovation? How do they usually take courses? Are they motivated to learn? Do they lack resources to do so?

The number of questions and hypotheses can be overwhelming. A practical way of structuring these, in order to get a comprehensive understanding of how to change the culture of public servants’, is by categorising these questions according to the capabilities, opportunities and motivations public servants have to adopt for a more innovative way of working. By doing this, we get a holistic diagnostic of the people’s context and become aware of the different components which could hinder the desired behaviour we intend to foster.

For instance, we identified that many public servants weren’t aware of innovation tools and methodologies. So, they didn’t have the necessary know-how to adopt a different way of working (which we in the model below categorised under their psychological capability). Also, we noticed that most civil servants actually took different training programs as part of their plan to advance in their careers (which we categorised as an expression of their reflective motivation). However, many times they perceived the courses as a tedious mean to an end (which we took as evidence of lack of automatic motivation). These insights might even seem basic, but in a hectic environment like the public administration, basic things can be a good anchor to not lose our way.


*picture of a workshop facilitated by LABgobar

Once we had an assessment of the different components that influenced the behaviour of public servants, it was easier to think about specific interventions and strategies that we had to adopt in order to foster an innovation mindset in them. Civil servants were already in the habit of taking courses, so we could use that as a platform and nudge them to take innovation courses. In other words, we realised that we should invest our efforts into designing more attractive courses, rather than creating a culture of continuous learning, which already existed. There was also a need to spread concepts and tools of public innovation widely, not only to raise awareness among civil servants but also to foster learning communities that could create a new social norm and overcome the discouraging effect of a few vocal nay-sayers.

Our change management strategy can be summarised in the following table. It shows the intended behaviour we wanted to achieve, the different components that influence people behaviour, the assessment we did, which specific actions we took and the effort we invested in.

Based on this mapping we decided to design different formats of courses that allowed civil servants throughout the government to overcome physical barriers and take our programmes. Moreover, we used a learning-by-doing approach since we found it made the courses more attractive to participants. There was a paramount priority which was to raise awareness in public innovation among civil servants. Therefore, we put all of our efforts to scale those training programmes that we tested and knew they had good results. As a result, we created 46 different face-to-face and virtual courses related to public innovation and trained more than 36,000 public servants.



The theory behind the experience: COM-B model in a nutshell

Okay, it is time to be honest. This is not something we came up with. The underlying framework that we used is called COM-B (the capability, opportunity, motivation and behaviour) model, and it was developed by the British psychologist Susan Michie and her colleagues in 2011. The crux of the model is that our individual behaviour is influenced by our capabilities, opportunities and motivations — as displayed in the table above. The model helps us to understand the dynamics that ‘COM’ have in behaviour and how that behaviour can, at the same time, affect those components.


*adapted from Susan Michie, Maartje M van Stralen, Robert West. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions

Moreover, each of the components can be subdivided into more specific aspects that help us to better understand the influences in behaviour. Capability could be physical or psychological, opportunity can refer to social or physical and motivation can be reflective or automatic. In the table below you can see in detail the description of every sub-component. For instance, that opportunity can encompass the real-world physical opportunities someone has to do and also the social influences that will allow them to take a specific action.


*Susan Michie, Maartje M van Stralen, Robert West. (2011). The behaviour change wheel: A new method for characterising and designing behaviour change interventions

COM-B can be used to make a holistic diagnosis of the users’ context and identify which components are currently unattended. This can help shine a light on your gaps,  highlighting any lack of policies in any of the components which would hinder the desired change in behaviour. In other words, if we aim to change behaviour we should take into account these components to design interventions.

Sharing is caring: we want to hear your experiences in government change management

Managing change in governments might be one of the most challenging yet important tasks in the public sector. Sometimes it feels like an impossible goal to achieve and quitting is tempting. However, as the Argentinean writer, Jorge Luis Borges once said: “Nothing is built on stone; all is built on sand, but we must build as if the sand were stone”.

I am confident that there are many outstanding public servants around the world fighting relentlessly to lead systemic transformations in the government. The magnitude of the mission should bring together a wide variety of disciplines and experiences. Collaboration and sharing best practices are essential. I humbly invite you to reach out and share the tools you have found useful to effectively manage change. Kudos to all of you and thank you for your service. — OL Beun

(Picture credit: Flickr)