Behavioural insights and social security


Behavioural insights and social security

Forward-looking members of the International Social Security Association (ISSA) are using behavioural insights as a lens to re-examine existing policies, programmes and services, or to develop new ones. The approach offers a powerful new set of tools to expand and deepen the client-centric orientation of social security, and to ensure the close alignment of services with public goals and desired policy outcomes. 

Changing the behaviour of people is a fundamental part of solutions to many wide-ranging and complex societal challenges, e.g., crime, all forms of discrimination, obesity, pollution, to name a few. This realization has given impetus to the application of behavioural insights in the design of public policies, programmes and services. The approach draws on the findings of psychology, cognitive science and social sciences, which point to conscious and non-conscious drivers of human behaviour. The conscious or non-automatic part is controlled and reflective, while the non-conscious or automatic part is intuitive and fast. While individuals can decide in a conscious and deliberate way, studies show that most decisions are non-conscious and habitual, and are influenced by what everyone else is doing, or by the way choices are presented.

In 2009, the Cabinet Office of the United Kingdom (UK) commissioned a report to explore the application of behavioural theory to public policymaking. The report (Dolan et al., 2010) developed the MINDSPACE framework that showed how to build behavioural insights into policymaking. To formulate policy, the framework recommends taking into consideration nine robust and non-coercive influences on human behaviour, with the mnemonic MINDSPACE serving as a checklist of these influences (see Table 1).

Table 1. The MINDSPACE checklist
Messenger We are heavily influenced by who communicates information.
Incentives Responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts. 
Norms We are strongly influenced by what others do.
Defaults We “go with the flow‟ of pre-set options.
Salience Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us.
Priming Our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues.
Affect Our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions.
Commitments We seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts.
Ego We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves.

Created in 2010, the UK-based Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) promoted the MINDSPACE framework from which a simpler, more pragmatic framework emerged, the EAST framework (Service et al., 2014). The EAST mnemonic summarizes four principles for applying behavioural insights, namely, to encourage a behaviour, make it Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. Other international organizations have since developed alternative frameworks, including the World Bank (World Bank, 2015) and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD BASIC toolkit).

While the frameworks may differ in emphasis, they share common ground that integrating behavioural insights into the design or re-design of policies, programmes and services can improve their implementation and thus facilitate the achievement of the social goals and desired public outcomes.

Below are some examples from the ISSA Good Practice Database as well as experiences shared in recent ISSA virtual events by members from Australia and Tunisia, Singapore and Indonesia, which show that a better understanding of context, member needs and human behaviour does lead to improved services, more effective solutions and better social outcomes.

Experiences in applying behavioural insights in social security

Coverage extension

Singapore. To reverse the youth’s perception that social security registration is an administrative burden, the Central Provident Fund Board (CPFB) of Singapore leveraged on the trend of adulting, where millennials share in social media their struggles with adult responsibilities. CPFB launched the #ICanAdult campaign and successfully turned around the conversation from avoiding social security to taking it on as part of their responsibilities.

Tunisia. The initiative of the National Social Security Fund (Caisse nationale de sécurité sociale – CNSS) of Tunisia to improve the coverage of mobile farm workers is a work in progress. Around 80 per cent of the country’s mobile farm workers are women. Significant barriers stand in the way of their coverage, most of which are grounded on employment that is seasonal, on-demand and temporary, with volatile incomes because of unstable farm yields.

Legislative amendments gave mobile farm workers a self-employed status, and allowed the payment of contributions in instalments versus the standard arrangement of paying contributions in full on a quarterly basis. A review of the client experience of mobile farm workers showed a need for new service modalities to avoid bottlenecks in missing identity documents, a lack of access to banking services, and the physical remoteness of rural areas. The introduction of interoperable platforms across government simplified among other things the registration requirements and the issuance of unique social security identifiers. Operational agreements with the country’s three telephone companies, the postal system and financial institutions established an electronic wallet payment system accessible by mobile phones. Despite the high level of illiteracy among mobile farm workers, the convenience of mobile phone services is providing this vulnerable group access to social security.

Contribution collection and compliance 

Kenya. The Local Authorities Pension Trust (LAPTRUST) of Kenya facilitates the coverage of informal sector workers through a Save as you spend campaign. Noting the human propensity to spend rather than save, LAPTRUST working in tandem with informal sector groups put in place an electronic process (using a debit or credit card or a mobile wallet) such that every time the individual spends, a small percentage is automatically credited to that individual’s pension account. In effect, the process uses technology to prompt a virtually non-conscious action to save for old age.

Indonesia. The National Social Security Administering Body for Employment (BPJS Ketenagakerjaan) of Indonesia in partnership with the UK-based Behavioural Insights Team applied the behavioural insights methodology to reduce the contribution arrears of employers and encourage them to make on-time payments of member contributions. They tested the effectiveness of different email interventions to influence employers to increase contribution payments before the monthly deadline (see Table 2) (Erfianto et al., 2019).

Table 2. Email messages to encourage timely payment of contributions
Trial arm Email content
Control No email
Social norms Informed companies that the majority of companies pay their social security contributions on time
Risk of prosecution Highlighted that companies with arrears could be prosecuted by government
Risk to employees Highlighted that employees were not insured through BPJS Ketenagakerjaan if companies were in arrears and appealing for them to take care of employees’ well-being
Planning Asked companies to mark a date and time in their calendar for when they would pay the contributions.

The trial results showed that “Risk of prosecution”, “Risk to employees”, and “Planning emails” had significant positive impacts on payment rates. The “Risk of prosecution” email was the most effective, with a 2.6 percentage point increase in the likelihood that the company would make the contribution payment by the deadline. “This increased the number of companies making a payment by 500 and repayments of earlier arrears by 10.2 billion Indonesian rupiah (IDR) (0.7M dollars of the United States (USD)) compared to the control group,” according to the report.

Despite the positive results, BPJS Ketenagakerjaan is holding in abeyance the implementation of the email strategies because of a government directive allowing employers to postpone contribution payments in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Prevention of error and fraud

France. The National Family Allowances Fund (Caisse nationale des allocations familiales – CNAF) of France uses a solid communication policy to reduce undue benefit payments, whether caused by unintentional error or wilful fraud. Automated checks using data exchange with partner agencies, document verification, and on-the-spot checks support the trimedia and online information campaign to encourage the public to promptly report changes in their situations to avoid returning undue payments. In the context of the “droit à l’erreur” (right ot error) law in France, the programme clarifies the links between social security rights and reporting obligations.

Benefit availment

Finland. The Social Security Institution (KELA) of Finland is benefiting from the population’s familiarity with social media and communication technologies. With over 100 different benefits that are available for various situations in life, the KELA tips are a targeted communication strategy that seeks to influence specific population groups like students, families and young people to apply for programme benefits. Key to the strategy is the use of succinct “headlines” that work in social media. Banner questions such as “Does someone in your family have memory loss?” or “Students, do your summer job incomes affect your housing allowance?” unmistakably encourage Finns to apply for programme benefits.

Singapore. To help members save adequately for old age, the CPFB of Singapore uses behavioural insights to innovate policies and strategies on retirement saving. A number of behavioural barriers stand in the way of saving for old age. This includes a bias for present consumption, a tendency to postpone retirement planning, and a general inertia to decide on the future. By astutely combining a variety of behavioural interventions such as default options, auto-enrolment, information on choices, convenience and incentives, CPFB is helping Singaporeans achieve better outcomes for themselves. Below are some examples.

Since 2013, the standard plan of a CPFB annuity scheme has been the default option for retirees. Nonetheless, the CPFB provides learning modules on investment concepts and products including a self-assessment quiz to gauge the investment knowledge of a member. This is especially useful to those considering opting out of the default option.

The CPFB Matched Retirement Savings Scheme (MRSS) encourages saving top-ups, with government matching every 1 Singapore Dollar (SGD) of saving up to an annual cap of SGD 600 for five years for eligible CPFB members. A QR code makes top-ups convenient and effortless.

The CPFB Retirement Planning Service (CRPS) also provides one-on-one counselling to inform members of available options and to encourage them to defer the drawdown of their monies with CPFB in order to receive higher monthly annuities and gain greater financial security in the later years of retirement. The CRPS is a highly recommended service, with more than 95 per cent of members endorsing the tailored information provided by the service.

Holistic approach to the use of behavioural insights and customer service

Australia. Over the past ten years, Services Australia has put together a holistic approach that collects customer and staff experiences through behavioural insights and user research to drive service improvements, the main features of which include the following:

  1. An online customer insights library where all research is centrally stored to provide the entire institution including policy departments with the customer voice on how existing services may be improved or new ones to could be developed;
  2. Experience labs around Australia to work directly with customers to explore their experiences, better understand the client journey, their needs and expectations, and what works;
  3. Customer Experience Multi-disciplinary Teams that “pull apart” the customer experience using the international delivery standards of the Discovery-Alpha-Beta-and-Live iterative process. The work involves a pre-discovery phase to build on existing work, identify gaps and draft early hypotheses. A discovery phase follows, which makes use of customer research, behavioural insights and data analytics to deepen an understanding of the existing state of affairs. The alpha and beta phases involve concept development and the iteration of prototypes to test with customers (and staff, where appropriate) to refine solutions and, based on feedback, recommend a service roadmap before a live roll-out;
  4. The use of technology such as artificial intelligence, and speech and other data analytics to provide high quality and high volume insights into the customer experience; and
  5. A Customer Experience Management Framework to guide the agency’s approach to human centred design of services that ensures the following standards are met:
    1. Identifying value – Are we solving the right problem?
    2. Creating value – Are we solving the problem in the right way?
    3. Extracting value – Is the solution(s) delivering the right benefits

The system in place has been tried and tested, proving itself invaluable time and again. The most recent experience was in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic that led to a swell of Australians needing access to income support benefits knows as JobSeeker payments. With the infrastructure and framework already in place, Services Australia quickly assembled a virtual multi-disciplinary team to radically streamline the JobSeeker claim process to use digital channels and mobile apps to apply and receive the benefit. Within the first ten days of the new process, more than 50,000 Australians completed claims at an average of 21 minutes.

Looking beyond the pandemic, Services Australia anticipates a continued need for face-to-face channels to support clients, especially those with complex needs or a preference for human interaction. Leveraging behavioural insights to reimagine face-to-face service delivery, it piloted in December 2020 a new service-by-appointment concept, the “Professional Service Model”, which is supported by digital, video conferencing and telephony services. The approach allows Services Australia to spend more time with vulnerable customers and to determine a need for the support of a professional or a third party organization. At the same time, a new generation of “Virtual Service Centres” is underway, where customers-by-appointment can virtually connect with expert staff.


As evidenced by good practices and experiences, ISSA members are continuously innovating to address persistent, evolving and increasingly complex challenges in social security. As always, the goal is to excel in the delivery of the social security mandate through better social outcomes and results for the public.

Behavioural insights are giving a powerful new set of tools to expand, deepen and make more encompassing the client-centric orientation of social security. The behavioural lens is giving institutions a fresh, creative and dynamic perspective on long-standing challenges such as coverage extension, contribution compliance, benefit distribution, the prevention of fraud and evasion, to mention a few.

ISSA members are in varying stages of maturity in the use of behavioural insights to innovate policies, programmes and services. Beginners and leaders alike are gaining significant improvements through the new approach. Far from being ad hoc or spontaneous, robust empirical methods underpin the application of behavioural insights. The discovery phase alone involves intensive processes in order to break down the challenge into parts, prioritize which behaviours to address, and consider evidence-based interventions that could influence behaviour (Hallsworth and Kirkman, 2020). Randomized control trials are fundamental to thresh the feasible solutions.

The ISSA project Behavioural insights and social security is developing a framework tailored to social security that will help ISSA members to get started on building, on an incremental basis, their capacities in the use of behavioural tools. Good governance, ethics and client-centricity are the basic blocks of the framework, which also underlines the importance of context. i.e., what may work in one group may not necessarily work in another. The project will include illustrative examples on the use of the framework and the application of a behavioural lens to re-examine persistent and long-standing challenges in programme administration including coverage extension, contribution compliance, prevention of evasion and fraud, and benefit administration.


Dolan, P. et al. 2010. MINDSPACE: Influencing behaviour through public policy. London, Institute of Government.

Erfianto, R. et al. 2019. Reducing social security arrears in Indonesia: Project report. Jakarta, BPJS Ketenagakerjaan, The Behavioural Insights Team.

Hallsworth, M; Kirkman, E. 2020. Behavioural insights (The MIT Press Essential Knowledge series). Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Service, O. et al. 2014. EAST: Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. London, The Behavioural Insights Team.

World Bank. 2015. World development report 2015: Mind, society and behavior. Washington, D.C.