When the Government Nudges the Police towards Diversity

What if you could add one sentence to an introductory email in order to bring minority candidates to the same pass rate in an online test as non-minority applicants? If it sounds literally incredible, find out what the British ‘Nudge Unit’ did in police recruitment.

The name sounds as if it came from a criminal TV series: The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT). It is maybe for that perceptional reason that the innovative social purpose company is nowadays commonly known as the Nudge Unit. Created in 2010 by the UK Government and Nesta (the innovation charity) it applies Behavioural Science in Policy. While the majority of their work aims at increasing cost-effectiveness, usability and outcomes, some efforts are dedicated to D&I-related questions.

A gap that will sound (sadly) familiar for D&I experts

In September 2016, David Halpern, BIT Chief Executive delivered a lecture at the Hertie School of Governance where he also used one stunning example to explain their work. The Nudge Unit worked with Avon and Somerset Constabulary to address a significant gap in the success rates of applicants from black or minority ethnic backgrounds (BME) compared to non-BME candidates. Specifically, a key part of the entrance test had been turned into an online exam, using a situational judgment test (SJT). This type of test is typically designed as a multiple choice exercise in which the candidates indicate how they would act or react in certain described situations. The marks for non-BME candidates were reported to be 111.9 versus 105.9 for BME applicants. These translated into pass rates of 58.2 % for non-BME versus 40.6 % for BME.

“What you say and when you say it”

According to Halpern, issues relating to the English language or computer literacy were not likely to explain the gap. Rather, in order to design their nudge, the BIT experts took evidence from behavioural literature suggesting “that priming, and stereotype threat, can have strong effects on performance.” The mechanism, commonly known as self-fulfilling prophecy, can increase or decrease performance by providing (real or fake) information about results by constituency prior to the test. Positive priming is known to reduce the effect and so the Nudge Unit added one sentence to the email introducing the online test. All candidates were asked to “reflect on what might make them a good addition to the force, and what significance that would bear in their community”. The intervention was checked with a control group (total n = 1,593) and effectively closed the gap in the success rate: Marks went up to 112.1 vs. 110.5 and pass rates to 58.5 vs. 61.6 % for non-BME and BME respectively. For Halpern, the key to this type of nudges is “What you say and when you say it”.

Targeting the critical elements

The BIT analysed that there was no difference in how long candidates took on deciding about their answers when completing the test (with or without the additional reflection). Instead, they relate their intervention back to people’s comfort level when following their gut instinct. For the Situational Judgment Test covers four categories including communication and empathy, and customer focused decision making. With their additional reflection primer, the BIT had helped (all) applicants to imagine themselves as police officers and hence helped them to excel on the two key competences communication and empathy, and customer focused decision making.

“Not the general things but how you do it”

Halpern’s summary can be a key line to remember for D&I practitioners looking to improve existing practices in their organisations: “Not the general things but how you do it”. Or, in other words, even if your Recruitment, Development and Retention policies and processes are perfectly designed, the way they are executed will determine if they have all the intended effects on the workforce and all its diversity. “Audits and adjustments along these lines are a key element of the implementation strategies our clients apply”, confirms Diversity expert, Michael Stuber. He also flags out that some types of Unconscious Biases are known to creep into seemingly meritocratic procedures. His work hence includes the mitigation of biases in these contexts.

David Halpern’s Lecture at Hertie School of Governance

BIT case study: Promoting diversity in the Police