Behavioral Science’s Growing Role in Making Government Work Better

A stronger focus on human factors can go a long way toward improving public services.
July 24, 2015
By Sharman Haley  |  Contributor
Sharman Haley is an affiliate professor at the University of Washington's Evans School of Public Policy and Governance and a retired professor of economics and public administration at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

Better understanding of how people think and act and can help agencies at every level of government improve their services to the public. Getting the right information to the right people at the right time -- and framed the right way -- changes outcomes. Simplicity can be transformative.

Those observations may seem intuitive or obvious, but until recently little attention was paid to the role of behavioral science in improving the effectiveness of government policies, programs and services. Interest in the subject now is growing rapidly, thanks to a growing body of eye-opening research on the subject.

That burgeoning interest was reflected in attendance at the inaugural conference in New York City last month of the new Behavioral Science and Policy Association. The conference drew more than 200 practitioners and academics who swapped stories about successes, pondering challenges and focusing on next steps.

You don't need to look further than education for evidence of successes. Parents want to encourage their kids' school performance, but don't always have the right information at hand. Education researcher Ben Castleman showed how simple text messages to parents or students -- such as tips for pre-school literacy, notifications of incomplete assignments or reminders of college financial aid application deadlines -- can improve academic outcomes by 10 to 20 percent and improve parent-child relations as well. When automated, the costs are minimal.

Affirmations also work. Max Bazerman of the Harvard Kennedy School's Behavioral Insights Group explained that people are more honest in their actions when they attest to their honesty before the action rather than after. He believes that tax compliance would increase if people signed their returns at the beginning of the tax-preparation process instead of at the end.

Similarly, asking recipients of unemployment benefits to formulate and state their plans for job searching in the week ahead is more effective in promoting productive job searches and re-employment than asking recipients to report past search efforts.

People's lives are complicated, and their capacities to follow through with paperwork are limited. Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein gave examples of how existing data can be accessed and used to pre-qualify applicants for public programs, thereby increasing enrollments and improving outcomes.

And then there's the matter of choosing among complex alternatives. As Sunstein and University of Chicago Professor Richard H. Thaler explained in their best-selling 2008 book Nudge, while most people prefer to have a choice -- for example, which health plan or retirement program to enroll in, or whether to donate their organs -- sometimes they are too busy or preoccupied or confused or uncertain to actively choose, and so opt for the default. From a public-policy point of view, which option will be the default needs to be carefully considered. One well known study showed that more people participate in organ-donation programs when they are given the choice to opt out than when they are given the choice to opt in.

There already are a number of valuable resources for policy makers and administrators who want to explore how these and other lessons might apply to their programs. The United Kingdom's Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has led the field in applying insights from behavioral science to improving local and national governance, program design and administration (You can read more about it here.). Under the What Works Cities initiative underwritten by the Bloomberg Philanthropies (more here), BIT is now extending its services to U.S. mayors and other local leaders.

In a similar vein, Ideas42 is a nonprofit organization engaged in bringing insights from behavioral science research into the applied realm, including interventions in economic mobility, financial services, education and especially health care. And for more ideas, check out the Behavioral Science and Policy Association's new journal. Clearly, interest in behavioral science's potential for improving the effectiveness in government is here to stay.