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:
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.
When people don’t pay overdue fines, the penalties can escalate. The BSA team worked with Collections to improve the overdue reminder letters for people with outstanding fines. We tested the payment rates for people who received the new behaviourally-informed letters compared to the those who received the original letter. A 2018 trial of the improved approach found that adding the sentence, “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. During the trial, people who received the social norm letter paid an additional $26,000 of overdue fines.
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.
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 guide outlines how to improve messages with five practical steps:
Reach the team at BehaviouralScienceAotearoa@justice.govt.nz
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