DWP expands behavioural science unit

Department to accept applications from non-civil servants for the first time

The Department for Work and Pensions has launched a recruitment drive for four posts in its behavioural science team – and for the first time will open up the roles to applicants from outside the civil service.

The department’s behavioural science team works across disciplines to address the problem that “sometimes government departments make decisions based on inaccurate assumptions about behaviour”.

The posts are available at both higher executive officer and senior executive officer grades, and could be based in Leeds, London or Sheffield. For the HEO role, the pay range will be £29,722-£32,844 nationally and £34,052-£37,262 for inner London; the SEO posts have a pay range of £32,566-£38,700 nationally and £36,852-£42,851 for inner London.

The team, which forms part of the department’s policy group, applies behavioural insights and social-science principles to the design of policies and processes across the department.

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This “forensic, rigorous and collaborative approach” works by, for example, investing time in diagnosing the problem and partnering with functions and professions across the department to develop innovative solutions. It is focused on ensuring that the department’s diverse range of users are represented during policymaking through gathering context-specific evidence and insight so the department can appreciate real-world complexity.

Recent examples of policies the team has worked on include so-called “journey mapping” to understand the experience of carers in employment to identify any disconnects between policy intent to support them to remain work and the practical realities.

Others include analysing the process of benefit claims through a range of different users, including DWP staff, to identify possible trade offs and address challenges in the system to make claims easier to make and less likely to be challenged in court. The team has also worked on the development of the new performance management system in the department itself.

However, the job specification notes that it is not a “behavioural insights” team like the so-called Nudge Unit that has been spun out of the Cabinet Office. While behavioural insights looks for opportunities to apply insights from academia to real world issues, relying on rigorous trialling to establish whether interventions will be successful, behavioural science is more focused on using behavioural thinking to build a better understanding of how people will behave in specific situations, and applying this to public policy.

“We have people who have studied cognitive science, philosophy, social psychology, occupational psychology, sociology, public policy, economics and languages to at least bachelor’s level, and three to PhD/postdoc level,” according to the candidate pack for the roles. “We do not think by any means that we have all relevant backgrounds represented and would be keen to broaden this range.

“Whatever your background, the key is that you are able to look at complex problems from a range of different perspectives to build a deep understanding of the issues and be willing to update or amend your views and assumptions based on new evidence.”

In a tweet publicising the recruitment drive, team head Carla Groom said that this was the first time that recruitment was being opened up beyond the civil service.

Sam Trendall

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