By ideas42

A conversation with John Gachigi, Head of the Social Assistance Unit in the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, Government of Kenya.

Jonathan Torgovnik/Getty Images/Images of Empowerment

Governments around the world have invested in behavioral science innovations to strengthen programs and services for their citizens, and this has proven to be an impactful investment. However, as more government agencies and units/departments consider using behavioral science strategies to enhance program outcomes, they are likely to face uncertainties and challenges.

To shed light on some of these uncertainties relating to applying this innovative approach to new contexts, we thought it would be best to get the perspective of someone who has faced such challenges and opportunities, and share what it’s really like successfully applying behavioral insights to a government program.

Over the last two years, ideas42 worked with the World Bank and the Social Assistance Unit (SAU) – a unit within the Government of Kenya’s Ministry of Labour and Social Protection’s State Department of Social Protection – to improve the efficiency of Inua Jamii, Kenya’s National Safety Net Program (NSNP). The SAU team participated in field research, contributed to the design of behavioral interventions, and took ownership of training and delivery of the interventions during pilot testing. Ultimately, the partnership yielded behavioral solutions that help beneficiaries of Kenya’s unconditional cash transfer make the most of cash assistance, including setting goals and making investments that can help them generate income in the future.

John Gachigi, the Head of SAU, offered to share his perspective on collaborating with a behavioral design firm and the process of creating innovative solutions to improve an existing program. It is our hope that the conversation offers insight into the experience of governments incorporating behavioral science into their programs and useful information for those in other countries considering applying behavioral science to their own work. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

ideas42: In what way has incorporating behavioral science changed what you do and how you do it? 

John Gachigi: Prior to implementing the behavioral intervention for the Inua Jamii cash transfer program, it was business as usual. The government was mostly concerned about availing the cash to targeted vulnerable communities in the most efficient and effective way. After taking note of how beneficiaries were spending their cash, we looked at the human side and examined their behavior, understood their aspirations and designed further support for beneficiaries.

This prompted us to adopt an innovative approach, taking cognizance of beneficiary behavior, and in line with the vision of the program. The set of behavioral nudges developed to do this are geared at helping beneficiaries reflect on their goals and plan how to achieve these goals by taking deliberate actions. This support prompts them to set goals, plan and utilize their money not purely for today’s needs, but also towards productive investments to uplift their livelihoods and enhance their resilience.

ideas42: Beyond our work together, are there examples of other areas where your teams have started using behavioral science?

JG: There are several. First, to institutionalize the behavioral sciences, we have made behavioral science part and parcel of our Annual Workplan and Budget. This has fostered acceptance and credibility of the impact of the behavioral sciences within the government. As an outcome, the nudge implementation is not a standalone activity but part and parcel of our overall work. The government uses a Beneficiary Outreach Strategy (BOS) as a vehicle to communicate with beneficiaries and deliver training within the Inua Jamii program. Behavioral nudges will be mainstreamed into the BOS capacity building mechanism for beneficiaries. The government is also using Beneficiary Welfare Committees (BWCs) as the vehicle for delivering BOS and behavioral nudges as these committee members have direct contact with the beneficiaries. BWCs also serve as the bridge linking beneficiaries to government officers and other stakeholders, hence a suitable mechanism for channeling the interventions.

In addition, we are building the capacity of government officers in the behavioral sciences: Informing officers about the approach and working together to create awareness and buy-in that will enable harnessing of behavioral science in other aspects of the government’s work. There are several key departments working on the Inua Jamii cash transfer: The Social Protection Secretariat (SPS), Department of Children Services (DCS), Department of Social Development (DSD), National Council for Persons Living with Disability (NCPWD) and the Hunger Safety Net Program (HSNP). These departments have been brought on board to learn about the behavioral sciences, contribute to the project and participate in the implementation. We are also including development partners such as UNICEF, and expect to further disseminate behavioral insights across the board in the future.

ideas42: What is your advice to other government teams considering applying behavioral science to their work?

JG: Governments are already actively occupied with many ongoing commitments, and it is important to identify viable entry points. The way it was done in Kenya was that we identified key drivers or champions for the behavioral science project (the Social Assistance Unit) within the government, then partnered with the World Bank. Government officers were trained, sensitized and involved in the entire process from diagnosis to design and testing, and this has helped them to own the process.

There is a need to have a core team of officers who can facilitate and train others for the knowledge to be cascaded to all levels. For proper intervention at grassroots levels, invest in capacity building of government officials and local officers.  

Finally, as the government is planning for programs and interventions on social protection, they should consider allocating some funds towards implementation of behavioral interventions.

Our work in partnership with the Government of Kenya is a case study in how behavioral science can be applied at low cost for social good. It also demonstrates a path forward for countries and cities looking to begin applying behavioral insights to improve outcomes for their own residents and constituents. Like in Kenya, an initial collaboration on something like improving the effectiveness of cash transfers can, with a thoughtful approach by those within governments, lead to further innovation and the institutionalization of behavioral design across multiple government programs.

By applying the power of behavioral science, governments can design more effective policies and programs, and because governments touch people’s lives in countless ways, this can contribute to scaling social impact and improving millions of lives around the world. Interested in applying behavioral insights to your own government work? Reach out to us at