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Experiments In Policy Making


  • The role of behavioural insights to facilitate conservation of water & building behavioural insights capacity in local government (2014 - 2019)

    Date: 2014 - 2019

    Research team: This project is being conducted by researchers from a number of organisations, including RUBEN, the Environmental Policy Research Unit (EPRU), and iCOMMS. Researchers include: Martine Visser (RUBEN & EPRU), Kerri Brick (EPRU), Samantha De Martino (EPRU), Jorge Garcia, Johanna Brühl (EPRU), Ulrike Rivett (iCOMMS) Megan McLaren (iCOMMS, Masters)

    In the first stage of this project, a large scale randomised control trial (around 400,000 households) was conducted where behavioural nudges were sent to households with their monthly municipal bill over a period of 6 months to motivate water savings. A number of framings were used, for example a social norm message compared a household’s consumption to the average for their neighbourhood and a financial loss message quantified the loss from not reducing consumption.

    While the first stage of the project was focused around the design and roll-out of the study, the second part is focused around knowledge and skills transfer and the integration of the learnings within the structures and staff at the City of Cape Town. Working papers from the first stage of the project

    • Brick, K., De Martino, S., Visser, M., 2017. Behavioural Nudges for Water Conservation: Experimental Evidence from Cape Town, South Africa. WRC Working Paper. DOI10.13140/RG.2.2.25430.75848
    • Brick, K., De Martino, S., Visser, M., 2017. Image Motivation for prosocial behaviour: Evidence from South Africa. Draft Working Paper.
    • Brick, K. and Visser, M., 2017. Green Nudges in the DSM toolkit: Evidence from Drought-Stricken Cape Town. Draft Working Paper, School of Economics, University of Cape Town. DOI10.13140/RG.2.2.16413.00489
    • Brühl, J. and Visser, M., 2018. Heterogeneous responses to behavioural messages: evidence from a large-scale randomised control trial in Cape Town. Draft Working Paper, School of Economics, University of Cape Town

     Additional Outputs

    • A report detailing the processes in terms of logistics and technology required to roll-out the interventions used during this study.
    • Local workshop with staff from different departments within the City of Cape Town to communicate findings and to set in place a plan to facilitate the integration of the necessary processes needed to scale up the findings.
    • Strategy for integration and cooperation formulated jointly between the research team and the City of Cape Town to ensure knowledge and skill transfer.
    • Paper comparing the effectiveness of tariff hikes to the behavioural nudges as a means of encouraging water savings.
    • Paper assessing the long-run impacts of behavioural nudges as a demand side management tool and shed light on the habit formation processes relevant to such interventions.
    • Knowledge sharing workshop at a national level
  • Eskom billing study (2014 - 2015)

    Date: 2014 - 2015

    Research team: Martine Visser, Grant Smith and Johanna Brühl

    The study experimentally investigated the role of improved timing and salience of information imparted in providing customers with utility bills. We specifically studied the impact of redesigning the utility bills and testing how different treatments fare in improving general understanding of the bill. We further investigated the role of timely messaging in reminding people about their consumption to improve salience issues in dealing with electricity usage.


    • Brühl, Johanna, Smith, Grant and Visser Martine. 2016.  Households' Inattention to Energy Consumption: How to Redirect Attention towards Desired Actions. Working Paper (also submitted as technical report for ESKOM)
    • Brühl, Johanna, Smith, Grant and Visser Martine. 2016. Simple is good – Redesigning a Utility Bill to reduce Complexity and Increase Consumer Understanding (also submitted as technical report for ESKOM)
  • Western Cape behaviour change project (2012 - 2015)

    Date: 2012 - 2015

    Research team: This project was conducted by researchers from a number of organisations, including RUBEN and Ideas42. Researchers included: Justine Burns (RUBEN), Saugato Datta (Ideas42), Ingrid Shaw, Brendan Maughan-Brown, Martine Visser (RUBEN), Marina Dimova (Ideas42) and Matthew Darling (Ideas42).

    This project ran for four years, and was initiated by the Western Cape Government (through the Department of the Premier, in collaboration with four other government departments) in an attempt to use principles of behavioural economics to improve the implementation and effectiveness of policy. The project comprised four pilot projects, and two campaigns.  The pilot projects focused on:

    1. Energy efficiency: Reducing consumption of electricity through messaging, social norms, and competitions
    2. After-school participation: Increasing the extent and frequency of participation in after-school programmes by learners in both primary and high school through behavioural communications, norms, identity-formation, and role models.
    3. Healthy lifestyles: This pilot project morphed into two separate projects. One focused on the use of competitions to promote exercise and healthy living, resulting in the successful piloting of the Walk for Health campaign within government. The second component focused on trying to reduce the incidence of age-disparate relationships (more commonly known as the phenomenon of “Sugar daddies”) in impoverished communities with high rates of HIV incidence. This was done using gamification to teach young people, girls in particular, about the relative risks of HIV associated with partners from different age cohorts.
    4. Safety: This pilot developed an app known as the Nyanga Nudge which aimed to provide young people with information about alternative extra-curricular activities they might engage in. It combined this information with social networking information so that young people had an idea of what others in their respective cohorts or peer groups were doing.

    In addition to the four pilot projects, the project also helped design and implement two short-term campaigns; one aimed at reducing road fatalities over the Christmas period and the second aimed at encouraging individuals to get tested for HIV.


    • Datta, S., Burns, J., Maughan-Brown, B., Darling, M., and Eyal, K. 2015. Risking it all for love? Resetting beliefs about HIV risk among low-income South African teens, Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation, 118.
    • Visser, M., Klege, R., Datta, S. & Darling, M., 2017. Changing Energy Consumption amongst employees in the Western Cape Government: A Randomized Control Trial, EFD Working Paper, forthcoming.
    • Nyanga Nudge and Safety in the Western Cape: Pilot Project results: Report prepared for Department of the Premier and Department of Community Safety, Western Cape Government, December, 2014.
    • Pilot project to promote participation in MOD Centres: Report prepared for Department of the Premier and Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport, Western Cape Government, September, 2014.
    • Healthy Lifestyles and Behavioural Economics Pilot Project: Report prepared for Department of the Premier and Department of Health, Western Cape Government, August, 2014.