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Integrating Systems Design and Behavioral Science to Address Public Sector Challenges from Within

Format: Papers, RSD7, Topic: Policy & Governance

Bellefontaine ​T., Soliman M.

Behavioural insights
Program design
Public Sector Innovation

The Canada Learning Bond (CLB) Lab is a systemic design project that was born out of behavioural insights (BI) trials. The integration of BI and systemic design continued to characterize this project as it unfolded, making it a compelling case study on the complimentary of these two disciplines in driving public sector change from within. The Innovation Lab in Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) is a Government of Canada innovation unit that engages with Canadians, stakeholders, and internal clients to gather new to develop and experiment with new approaches that are responsive to the needs of Canadians. With the CLB Lab, we embarked on a journey to understand the needs of Canadians living with low income to help increase the uptake of the CLB.

About The Canada Learning Bond

The Government of Canada encourages parents to save for children’s post-secondary education using Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). This includes the CLB, which is available for eligible children from low income families. When a parent goes to a private RESP provider and opens an RESP for their eligible child, the government will deposit money in the account towards the child’s post-secondary education (Parkin A., 2016). As of 2015, CLB take-up was 33.1%, with 1.8 million children yet to receive it (ESDC, 2015).

Research Approach

BI letter trials had indicated that simple changes to the messaging around the CLB would have limited impact on program uptake (ESDC Innovation Lab, 2017) and led to the conclusion that a system design approach would be an effective approach to understand the complex dynamics surrounding uptake (Richmond B., 1993). To understand this complex challenge, the Lab adopted a systems-level approach, which enabled us to explore the many individual-level and system-level factors that are entwined with parents’ willingness and ability to save for their children’s education. It also enabled us to better understand and consider factors and ideas that traverse program and jurisdictional boundaries. Understanding the challenge required working closely with a broad variety of actors in the system, starting with end-users (Canadian families with low income). The team interviewed people where they felt most comfortable: some welcomed us into their homes where we had conversations over dinner; others met us in community centers and other public spaces. The team met with parents, grandparents, youth, and children, including Canadians living in rural, as well as urban communities, and in First Nations communities. Workshops were held with parents and youth, using innovative techniques to facilitate the conversations surrounding education, decision making, and savings The team also worked closely with other key actors including various government departments, RESP (i.e. financial advisors, financial institutions and scholarship trusts ), not for profit organizations (who promote the program to their clients), teachers, academics, and other subject matter experts. These players were involved at every stage of the process, to leverage system-wide knowledge and insights (Sedlacko M. et al, 2014).

At early stages of research and problem identification, stakeholders were engaged through interviews and workshops to co-develop a systems map. The map centered around three behavioural anchors -motivation, capability, and opportunity- drawing from a behavioural sciences model called ‘The Behavioural Change Wheel’ (Michie S. et al, 2014). This provided a coherent framework for the systems map and enabled identification of leverage points tied to behavioural outcomes. This phase also included a theory of change analysis to make assumptions embedded within the program explicit (Weiss, C. H.,1995), examine evidence pertaining to these assumptions, and identify contextual variables to focus the design thinking inquiry.


Exploring the program and its intent from the perspective of the families it was designed to serve revealed useful design insights:

Awareness is an issue. Clients need to be better informed about what is available to them.
Promoting the CLB requires a multi-sectoral effort.
It’s complicated: the messaging, choices, and process can be overwhelming.
Parents need to feel safe when investing for their children.
Aspiration isn’t enough. The systemic barriers to education are too hard for some families to overcome alone.
People aren’t finding their path. This is resulting in lost potential for themselves and Canadian society.
The needs of the present compete with the needs of the future.
For some, avoiding embarrassment takes precedence over asking for help.
Foundation identification is necessary for full participation in society.
These insights helped us uncover opportunities for shifting the approach. This process enabled us to generate a number of innovative solutions, some incremental and some transformative, that can be tested to see whether they could trigger the desired changes in the system.


By integrating tools and methods from human-centred design, systems thinking, and behavioural insights, the ESDC Innovation Lab championed a holistic approach to understanding the needs of low income Canadians within the Government of Canada. By integrating systemic thinking into our experimentation, ideation, and innovation processes, we nurtured a long-term outlook on the program that adapts to diverse populations over time. The experience of leading a design-based innovation process from within the Government of Canada, in close collaboration with those directly responsible for program delivery, has yielded many lessons in driving change from within. The success of this project and its ability to spark innovation and support meaningful change has been shaped by deliberate attention to deep collaboration, respectful negotiation and mobilization of leadership. By embedding our internal client on the innovation team we developed a key bridge to implementation of ideas. However, systemic design is ideally suited to identify cross-cutting opportunities, and finding a home for implementation of ideas that do not fit discretely in one home organization requires a more extensive search for champions. Nonetheless, our evolving approach is enabling a sustainable and ethical innovation strategy. In doing so, we see change. It is fostering a cultural change in our organization and has sparked conversation across government on the interplay of how we understand our clients, their needs, and the prioritization of sustainable policy frameworks.


ESDC (2015). Canada Education Savings Program (CESP): Summative Evaluation Report.

ESDC Innovation Lab (2017). Canada Learning Bond Nudge Trial: Testing the effectiveness of Behavioral Insights through a promotional mailing.

Michie S, Atkins L, West R. (2014). The Behaviour Change Wheel: A Guide to Designing Interventions. London: Silverback Publishing. Retrieved from:

Nothing as practical as good theory: Exploring theory-based evaluation for comprehensive community initiatives for children and families. New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: Concepts, methods, and contexts, 1, 65-92.

Richmond, B. (1993). Systems thinking: critical thinking skills for the 1990s and beyond. System Dynamics Review, 9 (2),113–133.

Sedlacko, M., Martinuzzi, A., Røpke, I., Videira, N., & Antunes, P. (2014). Participatory systems mapping for sustainable consumption: Discussion of a method promoting systemic insights. Ecological Economics, 106, 33-43

Parkin, A. (2016). Family savings for post-secondary education: A summary of research on the importance and impact of post-secondary education savings incentive programs. A report prepared for The Omega Foundation.

Weiss, C. H. (1995). Nothing as practical as good theory: Exploring theory-based evaluation for comprehensive community initiatives for children and families. New approaches to evaluating community initiatives: Concepts, methods, and contexts, 1, 65-92.

Presentation & paper




Citation Data

Author(s): OCTOBER 2018
Title: Integrating Systems Design and Behavioral Science to Address Public Sector Challenges from Within
Published in: Proceedings of Relating Systems Thinking and Design
Article No.:
Symposium Dates:
First published: 2 October 2018
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