Behavioural Insights Team

The nudge, nudge future of CEIAG

One of the most substantial and thought-provoking pieces of work on Careers published in the last year was the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) commissioned report “Moments of Choice” which I looked at here.

The report was written by the Behavioural Insights Team and it gave the CEC plenty of conclusions on which to plan their own future work

We will highlight key messages, alerting schools and colleges to the types of conversations that young people should be having and when they should be having them; the types of information they should consider in those conversations; the mistakes that young people typically make and, perhaps most importantly of all, the things that they do not need to worry about.

on how young people wanted to consume Careers IAG

moments of choice1

and how the CEC would go about trying to achieve that

moments of choice2

In the past weeks two projects have come to light which show the way that this future Careers IAG apparatus might work in practice.

First was another Insights Team piece of research which used a three year randomised controlled trial to find that sending letters of encouragement to high achieving young people in Year 12, “penned” by students from similar backgrounds, increased the number of applications and acceptances to Russell Group universities. This kind of cost-effective intervention (printing and posting some mail merge letters are a lot cheaper than Careers Advisers) can be highly targeted using not only GCSE attainment data but also parental income data now available.

This type of intervention is small-scale when compared to Careers choice help for all young people outlined by the CEC above but we can see how such interventions could be scalable yet still retain an element of personalisation to the message so desired by the young people themselves as well as using technology to more be responsive to users needs.

An example of how this type of personalised messaging system could be used to aid Careers decisions can found in another Behaviour Insights Team project called Promptable.

Aimed at FE students, Promptable uses text messages to text students and nominated “Study Supporters” weekly with reminders and prompt discussions about revision and tutor feedback in the build up to exams. The Team found that students who took part in the Promptable trials boosted their College attendance and exam performance.

Imagine a similar system designed for secondary school age young people and nominated “Supporters” discussing Careers choices at appropriate landmarks. Schools or Colleges ask students to sign up to the site, the school has uploaded their own timeline for PHSE or Careers lessons, for Key Stage 4 choices, for specific visits, talks or careers fairs, for Key Stage 5 choices, for Higher Education plans, links to CEIAG online resources etc etc and then the site sends prompting texts to students and “Supporters” to discuss these milestones or enable Supporters to remind students to attend events. As with Promptable, you could even have the student complete a short questionnaire on sign up outlining areas of interest which they can tailor by sending code texts back (“to out of messages about events please text EVENTS STOP back to this number”) which would also notify the Supporter so a discussion could be had (“actually I think it would be good if you did go to that Apprenticeship Information Evening”).

This kind of interaction fulfills all of the requirements of an easily accessible, horizon broadening intervention method that also encourages personalised face to face discussions. CEIAG event notification and student tracking systems are already on the market through products such as Grofar but this system has the added impetus (or nudge) method of the Supporter, known to the student and offering  chance for discussion. Some in the CEIAG community would ask where in this system does the CEIAG professional fit in? As the local architect of the educational establishment’s profile on the main website, the organiser of the provision, the record keeper of attendance and the option of face to face guidance as another method of provision to be offered to the student body but most of all, as the face of encouraging student sign up to the system would be my proposal.

Large scale systems face a balance between creating systems that work for the majority yet be flexible enough to impact the individual. The communication method of results of systems like Promptable and the targeted use of household data to tailor messages to young people such as the “Encouraging people into University” report could show the way on how this is feasible in CEIAG.

Moments of choice

The emergence of evidence led research to direct careers policy in recent years has been a welcome branch of a wider evidence led trend across educational policy making. Using longitudinal data to not only show that employer faced careers interventions have positive outcomes but also to pinpoint the wage premium value these type of interventions have had has been a hugely persuasive headline for policy makers.

Keen to show that they are fulfilling one of their briefs to “show what works,” the Careers & Enterprise Company recently released a research paper “Moments of Choice – How education outcomes data can better support informed career decisions”. The document is based on two pieces of research: 1) an 84 page commissioned report also called “Moments of Choice” by the Behavioural Insights Team and 2) a piece of work by PricewaterhouseCoopers which looked at the current landscape of careers information providers.

The work of the Behavioural Insights Team is fascinating as it mixes psychology, sociology and economics to enable the state (or now that it is a standalone company, any paying client) to get the reaction from the public they desire. When the Department of Health wanted more people to join the organ donor list or HMRC wanted more people to pay their taxes on time, it was the Behavioural Insights Team they called. The potential overlap of Behavioural Economics and nudge theory to the student CEIAG process in schools is obvious and the scope for young people to make decisions and choices that are more informed and considered is huge.

The Insights Team research is based on a small number of interviews with young people and career professionals and a number of round-table events attended by a range of stakeholders. I attended one of those round-tables and noted at the time just what a task the Team had undertaken

and, looking back, it was stark just how misunderstood the event was by the stakeholders attending. The aim of looking at all of the influencing elements of career choice was too nebulous a concept for many to engage with or too wide for those only attending to reinstate their patch.

This complexity extends into the source research report but essentially outlines the following:

  • That, for each young person, a huge variety of contextual factors play differing roles in shaping their views on their careers possibilities. Parents, socio-economic background, peers, media and social media and other trusted adults can all play some part in a young person constructing a flight path and dismissing non desirable destinations
  • That the sheer number of possible options open to young people leads to a wealth of information across multitudes of providers. This wildly confusing landscape causes young people to retract and be hesitant to engage and prefer to stick to well trodden paths. They struggle to find information that they think will aid their decisions and find the information impersonal and hard to contextualize to their own lives.

Throughout the document popular behavioral psychology writers such as Daniel Kahneman are referenced (and the work in his book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” on decision bias and different judgement systems is very pertinent) but it was the work of Barry Schwartz that sprung to my mind.

Who theorizes that

  • A choice architecture system with many options to choose from can cause paralysis especially when the choices have been built up to be ‘important’
  • And that, the variety of choice leads the individual to believe that there must a choice that is a perfect fit for them. When the choice disappoints, the dissatisfaction for the individual is greater as they curse their (or the advice frameworks) inability to find the ‘correct’ choice for them (Which many would agree is consistent with the stereotypical adult reflection on past careers interventions).

To my mind though, it is noticeable that some elements you would expect at least a passing reference to are missing from the Insights Team report. When looking at how young people engage with career decisions, it is odd that any reference to the wealth of publications on career theory is absent. As anyone who has waded through Unit 3 of the Level 6 careers qualification will attest, plenty has been written on careers theory. Perhaps this decision was taken as the report only focuses on a specific age section of the employability journey while career theory can take a more holistic approach. Even then though, there is much the Team could have taken from Holland (1997), the importance Super’s (1953) Life Span theory places on “self concept shaped by feedback by the external world” or Gottfredon’s (1981) theory of Circumscription and Compromise considering the Career Enterprise Company’s overall aim of improving social mobility. There is also the disregard for the kind of career trajectory that Krumboltz’s Happenstance theory outlines. For a report whose aim is to outline an architecture that places the choices of individual as the author in control of their story, it is perhaps understandable but still striking to omit a theory which proposes that it is not even desirable for this to be the case.

There is also the lack of reference to the psychology of habit. Career decisions are not taken by individuals as single events in a vacuum. The habit loops of an individual will already be affecting their engagement with education and possible adult influencers well before career choices are tasked to be made. The work of Charles Duhigg and the concept of feedback loops


could have added value and helped place the behavioral psychology of choice into the wider context of a young person’s experience and how to positively interject into this.

Published simultaneously was the response to the research by the Careers & Enterprise Company which contains proposed actions such as disseminating further research and data such as longitudinal earnings figures to help individuals make more informed decisions. They also propose to convene an experts group to spread ‘advice’ statements on what works. The Company also sees a remit for itself in communicating advice to schools and CEIAG practitioners,

We will highlight key messages, alerting schools and colleges to the types of conversations that young people should be having and when they should be having them; the types of information they should consider in those conversations; the mistakes that young people typically make and, perhaps most importantly of all, the things that they do not need to worry about.

but that it

does not intend to provide individual advice to young people or create information tools designed to produce individualised recommendations. Our focus will be solely on high level advice i.e. advice that is true for large numbers of people.

This is slightly ironic considering the preceding thoughtful passages on ‘choice architecture’,

Personalisation is central to the creation of good choice architecture in complex scenarios. Personalisation means the degree to which the construction of choice sets and information sets is determined by what is known about an individual. Zero personalisation occurs when everybody has access to the same information and has to identify what is relevant to them. Weak personalisation occurs when information sets are created which are relevant to very large numbers of ‘average’ people – for example when information about career choices tells you about the average for a whole population of people entering into a particular career.

Which covers the nub of a paradox in the current UK Careers structure for young people. Distilling advice on the choices of individuals managing a trajectory through a hugely complex system such as the transition through education to work and beyond into career will only result in impersonal generalised statements. The report discusses the possibility of careers personalisation for young people being delivered by websites programmed with similar algorithmic processes to Amazon recommends. It acknowledges though that the bulk of responsibility of personalisation comes from the interactions with professionals involved in the day by day careers conversations, group work, trips and lessons designed to aid those young individuals. It is that very part of the process which, for all its strategic work with Enterprise Advisers and cold spot funding, the Company will remain at arm’s length from.

The tightrope of generalisation is even there, tripping up the Company in the Executive Summary

However, we can identify choices as ‘poor’ if, on clearly defined criteria such as ‘likelihood to increase earnings’, an individual has made a choice on a misconception

which fails to acknowledge that a misconception does not automatically lead to failure. A learner could choose a course on false information, love that course, be nourished by meeting like-minded people on that course and find happy, fulfilling work in the course area after graduating. A choice based on ‘wrong’ information can still turn out ‘right’: it’s a complex world and, as with general medical advice, there are always exceptions to the rule.

All of the strands of the Careers & Enterprise Company’s work can drive engagement between young people (and parents) and exploring careers decisions; bringing businesses into schools can illuminate job roles, publishing earnings data can lead to greatly informed decisions, sign posting ‘approved’ advice and notifying important calendar times can all help clear the fog of the unknown. It is though, the balances to strike between acknowledging complexity and simplification, between generalisation and personalisation and good advice and diktat that the Careers Company will have to find to succeed.

Hat tip to Tristram’s blog for bringing this report to my attention.