Home > Podcasts > BETA Podcast: Interview with Julia Dhar

BETA Podcast: Interview with Julia Dhar

20 December 2018

Behavioural insights units are springing up in government and private sector organisations all around the world.

But how do you set one up? Julia Dhar of Boston Consulting Group is doing just that with clients across the globe.

In BETA’s latest podcast Julia takes us through her experience working in the upper echelons of the New Zealand Government, before studying with titans in the field like Cass Sunstein at Harvard University.

She also speaks about her upcoming book with co-author Simon Mueller, called The Decision-Maker's Playbook.  

Note: since recording at BX2018, Julia has changed her surname from Fetherston to Dhar.

Disclaimer: BETA's podcasts discuss behavioural economics and insights with a range of academics, experts and practitioners. The views expressed are those of the individuals interviewed and do not necessarily reflect those of the Australian Government.

Transcript

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Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

Hello, and welcome to another episode in BETA's podcast series. BETA is the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government, and the team sits in the Federal Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. BETA's mission is to advance the wellbeing of Australians by applying behavioural insights to public policy and administration. Hi, my name's Elaine and I'm part of the team.

In this podcast series, we interview a whole range of behavioural economics and behavioural insights academics, practitioners, and policy-makers. This episode is actually part of our mini-BX series, where we interviewed some of the speakers at the 2018 behavioural exchange conference, or BX 2018. There, speakers travelled from all around the world to share the work they've been doing in the behavioural economics and insights field.

In this episode, I interview behavioural economist, Julia Dhar. She's a principal at the Boston Consulting Group, or BCG for short. So there, she's the co-founder and leader of BeSmart, BCG's behavioural economics and behavioural insights initiative, which looks at how to use behavioural insights to improve product and service design and delivery in all sorts of organisations across both the public and private sector.

It was great to hear Julia speak about how behavioural insights is being used in the private sector. Hope you enjoy!

Hello. I'm at the International Convention Centre, here at BX 2018, the Behavioural Exchange Conference and I'm with Julia Dhar who's just finished the Great Debate, which we hope to hear more about later. But to start with, thank you for joining me today Julia, and could you please give us a bit of background? So who you are and where you come from?

Julia Dhar:

Thank you. It is so nice to be back here in my once-hometown of Sydney, but especially to be back at BX and to be able to participate in this conversation about where we've been and where we're going. I'm Julia Dhar and I am a principal at the Boston Consulting Group and I lead BeSmart, which is our behavioural economics and behavioural insights initiative.

And within that global multi-disciplinary team, we do a few things. So we help our clients—whether they be governments or private entities or non-governmental organisations, institute—and embed behavioural insights capabilities. Whether that's a unit, whether it's thinking about how you upgrade the capability of the whole organisation, whether it's helping people manage through a complicated transition or change.

We also actually help clients review their behavioural capabilities, understanding where there might be gaps, where they should begin to focus next, and to begin to think about what Dilip Soman would call a ‘behaviourally informed organisation’ might look like.

And the third thing, one of my favourite things is, we do quite a bit of work on ourselves as well thinking about how you could make BCG, for the almost 10,000 people who work there, a more purposeful, more engaging, more satisfying, more collaborative place to work.

Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

So not just about applying BI, but also about building the capability in behavioural insights. That's excellent. And how did you become interested in behavioural economics?

Julia Dhar:

I often say that I was by training a “regular economist”. Then I worked in New Zealand for Bill English at the time that he was the Minister of Finance and Deputy Prime Minister, before he became the Prime Minister. And I took a lot of inspiration from his idea that one of the challenges for civil servants or the way in which government operates is often in the ‘servicing of misery’, as he puts it. The servicing of miser, and it's this idea that we don't actually invest a lot of government energy, capability, and resources in helping people lead happier, more productive lives. And helping alleviate the, you know, like systematic conditions in which people find themselves miserable.

And so that, for me, was an inspiring way of thinking about how you live economics, how you practice economics. And I was very fortunate then to study at the Harvard Kennedy School with many of the giants in the field. So you have Cass Sunstein, of course, but also Max Bazerman, Iris Bohnet, Todd Rogers. I feel I'm very privileged to have been able to learn from those teachers, but also part of a community of students, funnily enough many of whom, very many of whom, are here at this conference. And you can see this cohort of behavioural passionistas, I guess, enthusiasts, who also built this sophisticated knowledge and understanding over time and began to go back out into the world and think about how they practice it.

Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

Yeah, fantastic! Could you share with us what you're working on right now?

Julia Dhar:

A couple of different things. So one is helping a couple of governments. Some of my government clients, think about how they actually create a unit, or even ask the question, is a unit the right model for us knowing that we want behavioural insights capability inside the government. Asking that really fundamental question. I'm doing quite a bit of work with one of my close friends and collaborators at BCG, Alan Iny who's our global head of creativity on the interaction between creativity design thinking and behavioural insights. How you might use behavioural insights to make your problem-solving and brainstorming sessions better.

How you might use the lessons of design thinking, of creativity, and those principles to actually change the way in which you hypothesise or generate new insights, new theories. So that I'm really excited about. And then the third part is I'm in the process of finishing up a book with my co-author Simon Mueller, called The Decision-Maker's Playbook. Thinking about how we actually make some of these really important lessons, that perhaps here at the conference we're almost beginning, in the luxurious position of taking for granted, how we make those readily available and accessible to a wider audience.

Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

So first question I want to ask following that is, when is that book going to be released? And secondly, do you have a favourite behavioural economics concept or behavioural bias?

Julia Dhar:

So the book will be released, it will be published by the Financial Times and our expectation is it will be out in early 2019 and we are excited about it. Do I have a favourite behavioural economics concept or bias? For me, and this is thinking about how one nudges oneself, third-party accountability for me is really powerful. And it's a little bit married with pre-commitment, of course, and sometimes it's enough to just say out loud that you intend to do it. But the idea of having, even a peer hold you accountable, is something I use both a lot in work and life and I find very helpful. Not always pleasant, but helpful.

Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

Yeah. And that also goes to how you do apply it in your everyday life to some extent. Could you please share with us some reflections you might have on the evolution of behavioural economics and behavioural insights as a field over the last few years?

Julia Dhar:

One of the conversations we just had in the debate session, and it's an observation that Dilip made that I think is powerful is that, literacy is really increasing. Almost across the board that you go into private sector organisations, public sector organisations. And of course there's some bias, right? The people I interact with are disposed towards the topic. But I think the extent of knowledge and sophistication that has been both widely disseminated and then widely absorbed by people who are passionate about this and who have then gone out to evangelise inside their organisation is really remarkable. I mean they are the kind of agents of change.

Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

Fantastic! And one last question, what's next on the agenda for you?

Julia Dhar:

Well, a couple of different things. I'm excited to actually continue this conversation that we're having inside BCG about the interaction between behavioural economics and creativity and how that might actually help you expand the aperture of the way in which you solve problems. I'm very excited to finalise and complete this book. But one of the inspirations that I take away from the conference, or the kind of question that I walk away with, is how do you actually build on an environment like this where we have these 700 passionate people deeply engaged around a topic for a few days. How do we start building, even quite loose, communities of collaboration?

How do we keep that conversation going? I don't have a ready answer for that yet, but that's the question worth asking, for me, that came out of this.

Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

I think that's exactly right. And what I've noticed is people coming together from very different backgrounds. So as you say, you come from a consultancy background, but what we see is practitioners from the private sector but also public sector, government, and academia. And it's quite exciting to see that this field is actually bringing together all of that and we're leveraging from each and every different area to essentially solve the same problems that we want to all work on. So that's really exciting and all the best with your work and the book. We look forwards to seeing it come out.

Julia Dhar:

Thanks. Me, too!

Elaine Ung, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet:

Thank you for your time.

Hi again. Thanks so much for listening. If you want to learn more about Julia's work, head online to the BCG website where you can read some of her publications and watch some of her videos. If you haven't heard our previous episodes, listen to them at www.pmc.gov.au/beta. Until next time!

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