Thursday, 25 April 2013

Improving social policies through behavioural science

Need to grow the capabilities of those getting help so they can contribute to society: Chun Sing
By Ashley Chia, TODAY, 24 Apr 2013

The “conventional wisdom” of training the unemployed and then letting them look for a job did not always work well as it does not promise them employment, said Acting Minister for Social and Family Development Chan Chun Sing yesterday.

Instead, some organisations turned the practice around by placing a person into a job and training them up from there, which would give them the assurance of employment and even motivate them to work harder, he added.

This was one of the examples Mr Chan gave on how social policies and programmes could be better designed through the use of behavioural sciences, so as to ensure that the social safety net here remains sustainable in the future. He was speaking to some 300 social service practitioners, policymakers and academics who attended the inaugural Social Sector Conference, co-hosted by the Civil Service College Singapore (CSC) yesterday.

Besides helping the unemployed, Mr Chan also cited how some beneficiaries may not like to be given handouts, as they may have a sense of pride. Thus, to overcome this reluctance, some within communities have started projects, where instead of presenting the pay cheque as “a welfare cheque”, it is presented “as a payment for community work, so that the needy can earn their keep”, he added.

While these are ways that behavioural science can be applied to how programmes are designed, Mr Chan said policymakers have to be “sensitive” to the needs of different people “and not just apply one set of measures uniformly”.

Professor Peter Shergold, Chairman of the New South Wales Public Service Commission Advisory Board, who also spoke at the conference, felt that while governments have sought to give financial support to those in need, they have also “simultaneously disempowered and marginalised” them as they receive support.

Treating those with the “greatest multiple disadvantages and needs” as if they are beneficiaries, recipients or cases to be managed lead to people feeling disempowered with their own lives because they feel that they are always “getting something for nothing without the responsibilities”, added the CSC senior visiting fellow.

Drawing from the example of Australia’s social system, Prof Shergold said: “The safety net is a wonderful thing in Australia, but we now face issues of how we’ve come to second- and third-generation social exclusion. Because the way we have delivered programmes is actually to create exclusion. We’ve constructed a wonderful safety net to catch you if you fall, but we’ve constructed a safety net that is very difficult to climb out of,” he said.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the event, Mr Chan felt that “giving more” to address the immediate needs of vulnerable families was “straightforward”, but growing the capacity and capabilities of those receiving help was more important, so that they will be able to be independent and be contributing members of society.

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