The Behavioural Insights Team is a research unit made up of randomistas who prefer to rely on behavioural economics and psychology to develop and test `nudges’ to achieve certain policy goals. They originally grew out of the Cabinet Office, but eventually went private (the CO has retained a stake in the BIT).
I was always excited by the mere existence of the Behavioural Insights Team – this was the first clear example of government investing in rigorous randomisation to test some of its policies.
That said, while the BIT likely comprises a group of people who want to make the world a better place, they are beholden to their clients. One of these clients is the Home Office, which is currently paying the BIT to find ways to convince illegal migrants to voluntarily leave the UK. From the BIT’s update report:
Increasing voluntary departures of illegal migrants
BIT has been working with the Home Office to consider new measures to help illegal migrants to voluntarily return home, focusing initially on engagement at reporting centres. Reporting centres are seen as an important but underutilised opportunity to prompt illegal migrants to consider whether leaving the UK voluntarily would be a preferable option in their circumstances.
Starting in December 2014, BIT undertook a short piece of ethnographic research at reporting centres across London, reviewing current procedures and interaction points to gain an understanding of the reporting centre experience from the perspective of a member of the reporting population and the reporting agent.
Informed by this, BIT developed several options for Home Office consideration to employ behaviourally informed trials in reporting centres that could encourage higher numbers of voluntary departures from the UK.
At this stage, the precise scope of a trial is still being finalised, with the aim to combine a number of behavioural elements to create a distinct reporting centre experience that encourages members of the reporting population to consider voluntary departure as an alternative to their current situation.
Note that many people who end up in reporting centres are asylum seekers, not just illegal `economic’ migrants. The BIT has another project in the pipeline aimed at targeting business who hire illegal migrants, with a similar end goal of convincing the migrants to voluntarily go home. The Home Office got a lot of push back from trying this before, in the not-too-subtle form of a van driving around telling migrants to go home:
So now the UK government has turned to more insidious methods, aided by a team of randomistas. It’s useful reminder that rigorous, evidence-based policy can be used for stupid, short-sighted policy as well.
*Disclaimer: I once applied to work at the BIT, but dropped out midway through the selection process to work on a project in Oxford.