Behavioral Insights in the Age of Big Data: Opportunities for Slovenia

December 21, 2021 by Tomas Bueno Momčilović

Behavioral science can help us get better public services – and it may be coming to a government near you. That’s what we learned in the “Behavioral Insights in the Age of Big Data” seminar at the Technical University of Munich last winter, when fellow Master’s students and I were immersed in the world of applied psychology. It turns out that nudges – small psychological tools in everyone’s best interest, like a well-timed tax reminder or better user experience in eGovernment websites – can really improve how public services are delivered.

The goal of the three-month seminar was not just knowledge; we were invited to contribute with our own research. Room for contributions starts from the realization that nudges aren’t exactly new, although the name might be. As a 2017 OECD report shows, governments have been trying to work with ideas from behavioral economics or cognitive psychology for decades. An automatic enrollment here, a raising awareness campaign there, and you get more than 30 countries, which the OECD praises for relying on such data to improve their work. Our goal was to bring attention to those that didn’t get already extensive coverage. Slovenia is the only country in South East Europe whose project was listed; so being the only participant from the region, I wanted to do the topic justice.

As with any remote research, you must seek out those who do the work on the ground. Luckily, I got in touch with Arjonela and Želimir from the Center of Excellence in Finance (CEF), whose knowledge provided a great head-start. Indeed, the role of the Ljubljana-based CEF is important for Slovenian projects for three reasons. It’s embedded in finance, a field abundant with incentives for improving trust and simplifying transactions. It’s connected to the larger regional community of practitioners who happily share best practices with each other. And to my luck, it was about to host a webinar on behavioral insights in January 2021. I knew that it was a right call to rely on people who know more than the online sources reveal.

Most of the existing projects are related to finance. The starting point was a 2014 experiment by the Slovenian Ministry of Finance who tested whether appeals and reminders improve the tax reporting precision of accounting firms (hint: they do). With Arjonela’s help, I managed to get a good picture of the public practitioners and academics who contribute to the field beyond that case, snowballing my way to a comprehensive overview of apps, academic research, media discussions and raising awareness campaigns. Although not strictly about Slovenia, the “Applying Insights from Behavioral Science to Internal Audit” webinar in January was a good primer on how readily the regional financial experts collaborate when it comes to improving public services.

Several interesting results came up from the review. The 2014 tax experiment may have placed Slovenia on the OECD map, but did you know that it was already one of the top EU countries in digital transformation of both public and private sectors? As the “digital challenger,” Slovenia is also among the first to participate in wide gamification, trust and well-being projects of the EU and OECD. Beyond just developing paths for the future, the government instituted an opt-in pension enrollment and the eTax app (eDavki) based on known insights, and has been among the first to roll out an app for easier access to COVID-19 information.


But what were the overall observations? For one, Slovenes are exploring a lot of potential in behavioral economics thanks to enthusiastic practitioners and academics. The Bled conference on digital transformation, the Ljubljana forum on future cities, and the smart city projects in Maribor and Ljubljana are example areas where the Slovene discourse joins the cutting edge. While there’s no fixed agency like the BIT Nudge Unit in the UK, organizations such as the CEF, Pokojninska Družba A or the University of Ljubljana provide hubs for the exchange of nudge-related ideas, with the hope that projects will pop up across the country. There were also no clear examples of Slovenian organizations using nudges against the best interests of the public (the so-called sludges), and many discussions around privacy or psychological tricks revolve around foreign apps. Still, most endeavors are in the development stage, so applied behavioral insights beyond traffic or raising awareness campaigns are quite rare.

Yet, Slovenia is not alone in this stage of development – and what would we do if we didn’t do some nudging for practice ourselves? Our collective work from the seminar will hopefully get published, placing Slovenia as a digital leapfrogging innovator beside Japan or New Zealand, and incentivizing more practitioners to apply insights in their work. For those wanting to build on this research, I posted the list of keywords and sources until February 2021, here for anyone to pursue the (un)explored possibilities.

Finally, for those still unsure about the usefulness of nudges, the work of Slovenian practitioners and academics will definitely help drive these ideas forward: the CEF team, the Irrational Retirement blog, and the universities of Ljubljana and Maribor. If you work in any field where people interact – especially in finance or public administration – the sources I listed may actually convince you. At the very least, knowledge can protect you against counterproductive sludges or biases that you never knew were there, but you may even start noticing how something small can actually get things done better.

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