Making Channel Shift Happen - Canadian Government Executive
DesignE-governmentICTService delivery
October 18, 2017

Making Channel Shift Happen

“If governments want to shift citizens to online channels and get them to keep using those online services, it needs to consider what drives our decisions and behaviours” - Behavioural Insights Playbook

Public sector managers from all levels of government across Canada increasingly are finding themselves challenged by central agencies, senior management and, or clients to improve performance and reduce the cost of service delivery operations. The subtle and not-so-subtle calls for increased “channel shift” to online services are unmistakeable.

Driving this push for improvement is a growing body of evidence and practice from Canada and around the world that careful consideration of how humans behave and make decisions can yield important and practical insights in how programs, and online services in particular, can be delivered more effectively.

Drawing from psychology, economics and cognitive science, behavioural insights offer a new way to think about, build, tweak and test ways to increase the use of online channels. Rather than simple rationale decision makers, we now know that our brains are hard-wired to take shortcuts when making decisions. Our sense of self, our experience, the ways we assess options, and how we perceive and reflect on outcomes are all factors that contribute to our behaviour. The interventions that are developed through a behavioural insights process based on this knowledge are often effective, low-cost and measurable.

The New Mexico government, for example, demonstrated that reminding unemployment claimants via a simple pop-up screen that 9 of 10 of their neighbours report new income created sufficient “peer pressure” to double the number of claimants reporting any new income. Service Ontario tested three separate “interventions” and found that by focusing on the benefits of renewing drivers’ license plate stickers online helped people shift to a new channel, producing a 42 per cent improvement.

In Canada, organizations as diverse as EDSC, CRA, Service Ontario, Canada Post and Region of Peel are demonstrating that a careful, measured approach acknowledging and addressing common behavioural barriers can lead to meaningful and measurable improvements in online service utilization and cost savings.

Each of these organizations has successfully introduced one or more common behavioural interventions, including simplifying the message, attracting attention, showing that most people perform the desired behaviour, using reminders, and focusing on immediate gains and losses.

Over the past few years, based on leading examples from Denmark, the United Kingdom and the United States, the Canadian public sector has witnessed the emergence of a growing interest in applying “next generation” service design engineering to service delivery and service policy challenges. The use of behavioural insights is a tool that can target service design at the interaction level.

“While behavioural insights is by no means a panacea, our research and experience suggest that it is a critical piece of the puzzle to delivering better services to citizens,” said Deloitte.

To accelerate the awareness, trial and adoption of this emerging branch of client/citizen-centered service delivery design, the Public Sector Service Delivery Council (PSSDC) commissioned the development of the “Behavioral Insights Playbook for Channel Shift” intended for widespread use across the Canadian public sector. This effort to expand awareness and use of better service design is one of a series of initiatives sponsored by the Federal, Provincial/Territorial Deputy Minister Table on Service Delivery Collaboration.

Recognizing that most Canadians routinely use digital services in their daily lives and are accustomed to digital applications and services, the persistently low uptake of online government services has been a source of frustration for most Canadian government jurisdictions. Given the greater convenience and often superior user experience of online services, not to mention offering taxpayers better value for their tax dollars, the PSSDC established a Working Group to explore approaches to encourage greater uptake of online services by citizens and businesses. After an initial scan of best practices aimed at improving the uptake of digital services, the Working Group began exploring the underlying principles of behavioural insights that have been used to move citizens online.

“Understanding human behaviour is important for public policy makers and critical in the design and delivery of high-quality public services,” says Ron Hinshaw, Executive Director Service B.C. and Co-chair of the PDDSC Channel Shift Working Group.

Through joint jurisdictional funding, a project was initiated in partnership with Deloitte to develop a Behavioural Insights Playbook for the PSSDC to share knowledge, tools and approaches to benefit all jurisdictions looking at infusing new momentum in the delivery of digital government services. This Playbook has been designed to set out the rules, tactics and principles for using behavioural insights illustrated through a step-by-step approach and using real examples that demonstrate key tactics in action.

The Playbook for Channel Shifting (now available via the Institute for Citizen-Centred Service website) follows a six-step process designed to help a service practitioner apply insights about human behaviour to help shift citizens online. By going through these six steps one gains a true understanding of the citizen needs and can create solutions that are citizen-focused and designed to help them make choices that are in their interest.

Step one is to identify the desired outcome of the project. What is the specific behaviour you are trying to change or the choice you are encouraging citizens to make (or not to make)? This is an important first step and the desired outcome must align with your organizational goals and priorities to ensure the scope is significant enough that realizing the desired outcome will have significant and positive consequences.

Step two is about diagnosing the behavioural barriers and understanding those barriers that are preventing citizens from choosing to use online service channels. In step two, the practitioner explores approaches to gaining a better understanding of baseline performance and how to use qualitative and quantitative data to uncover factors that lead to certain citizen behaviours. Understanding how people behave and using some of the common barriers to channel shift as a starting point can lead to identification of the likely barriers preventing people from using the online channel. Low-cost but powerful client-centred techniques such as Customer Journey Mapping are often a great place to start identifying barriers.

In Step three, the practitioner’s focus is turned to identifying interventions that will reduce or eliminate the barriers. In this section of the Playbook, some key principles to consider when designing interventions are introduced, and a few common behavioural interventions are highlighted along with a few key questions to consider when choosing interventions to test.

Once the most appropriate intervention(s) have been selected, Step Four helps in the design of the product, process or communication that contains the intervention(s). Step four helps with understanding the complexity of the selected design and provides instruction and advice on the design process.

Step five is about testing the intervention that has been designed. This is how it is determined whether or not the intervention actually works and what, if any,  refinements need to be made to maximize impacts. The Playbook looks at a number of potential testing approaches, including when it’s most appropriate to use different types of tests. In this section, the service practitioner is introduced to the key elements of running a randomized control test, which is the most robust approach to testing an intervention. While it may be determined that the risk of an adverse impact of the intervention is very low and testing is not required, some evidence is always better than no evidence and some form of testing is recommended.

Finally, step six is about analyzing the results and scaling up the best performing intervention(s). In this section, the Playbook lays out the process for assessing the significance of the results achieved and determining the impact of the intervention(s), including which interventions tested were most effective. This section provides advice and ideas on scaling up interventions including considerations around combining interventions.

While following the six steps will guide a service practitioner through the Behavioural Insights process for Channel Shifting the Playbook was not intended to be a comprehensive study of behavioural science. However, in addition to the step by step process, the Playbook does provide a number of government-focused case studies and examples, as well a number of other tools and templates to make designing, solutions for “nudging” citizens online achievable and successful.

On behalf of the PSSDC and the Channel Shifting Working Group, it is hoped you find this to be a useful and dynamic resource rich with insights, advice and practical examples to support you along on your journey to digital government.


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