The Art of Nudging Technology Adoption in Government

There's always going to be resistance to change. Behavioral science can help overcome it.
May 16, 2018
Boston's 311 app tracks the city's progress in addressing reported issues. (City of Boston)
Bill Eggers
By William D. Eggers  |  Contributor
Executive director of Deloitte's Center for Government Insights
By Timothy I. Murphy  |  Contributor
A researcher and analytical scientist at Deloitte Services LP

The U.S. Forest Service recently spent thousands of dollars apiece updating its field radios. The new devices, which could store more frequencies and were easier to program, were intended to improve the firefighter experience. But some veteran wildland firefighters grumbled, pawned the new radios off on rookies, and continued to use the old ones. The problem was that in the new design the volume and channel dials had swapped places, and they didn't like it.

We all have seen this kind of thing happen. If you're implementing a new technology in an organization -- even one as simple as an updated radio -- -unconscious resistance could mean the difference between an impactful improvement and end users developing a workaround that defeats the effort.

We've analyzed a diverse set of case studies of new technologies introduced to public-sector organizations and found that the difference between full adoption and technological "tissue rejection" is not always a question of technology or even the basic strategy for piloting it in the organization. It's usually a matter of the attention paid to human behavior.

An organization's technology and strategy are implemented, in the end, by real people. Real people are subject to cognitive biases. To learn how to improve the odds of getting a new technology to stick, we turned to behavioral science, which has explored how basic behavioral "nudges" can encourage people to transform their workflows even in the face of uncomfortable change.

Three basic strategies are a solid place to start:

Intrinsic motivation: Humans often coast along in the tracks of their habits. To remake a habit requires conscious effort. Convincing end users that there is a good reason for that effort can inspire the expenditure of the cognitive energy required to uproot a habit.

It can be as simple as phrasing. Employees at a state human-services center who had to digitize paper applications were evaluated initially based on "number of backlogs resolved." When that measure changed to "number of citizens helped," the employees refocused their energy. Instead of shunting complex applications to the bottom of the pile because they slowed down the case-resolution rate, they addressed them to get aid to families. With simple adjustments to process and behavioral nudges, the workers reduced a six-month backlog to zero.

Choice architecture: This is the art of presenting alternatives in a way that encourages decision-makers to make the preferred choices. It's classically represented by making the default choice one of opting out rather than opting in, a technique that has been shown, for example, to greatly increase the number of people who agree to donate their organs when they get their driver's licenses or open IRAs when they start a new job. Similarly, choice architecture can be used to adjust workflow to ease the adoption of new technology.

One might even change literal architecture. Medical practitioners who were given barcodes to scan vaccines into electronic health records kept squinting at small fonts and typing the records manually instead. In the first pilot of barcodes, only 25 percent of providers adopted them. So barcode scanning machines were physically moved to a location near vaccine storage; a practitioner would have to walk past them on the way to administer the vaccine. With that and several similar behavioral nudges, adoption rose to 94 percent.

Feedback and transparency: People like to know why they are doing something and whether it is effective. Transparency works in two places: in the front end, by clarifying an effort's ultimate goals, and on the back end, by revealing an effort's results.

People respond better to immediate feedback, but because public-sector initiatives often involve big-picture projects, long-term societal investments or intangible benefits, sometimes a more immediate measure of success is necessary to motivate them.

The vaccine providers mentioned earlier were given training to explain why the scanned barcodes provided better for their patients: More complete and accurate electronic records, they were told, would help in the case of a vaccine recall or a pandemic. This helped, on the front end, to justify the cognitive work of changing their habit.

The city of Boston offers back-end transparency with its Bos:311 app. Citizens often don't bother reporting problems like potholes if they don't believe that doing so will make a difference. But when a complaint goes up on the app, it tracks the city's progress to address the issue. When a pothole is repaired or a raccoon corpse is removed, municipal workers post a photo, completing the feedback loop.

As these examples illustrate, there are far better ways to introduce new technology into an organization than simply handing firefighters new radios. The process needs to start with research to understand the status quo. Observation, testing and surveys can help reveal how a new technology will affect the workflows of the people implementing it. Understanding the cognitive habits at stake is crucial to removing subconscious obstacles. In a large organization, especially in the public sector, management has to make the best path easy. And that takes hard work.