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A forum for government's best ideas and most innovative leaders.

Making the Brain Less Racist

Is there any way to improve race relations? Re-watching the 1993 film The Joy Luck Club might help a bit. In one study, white people who watched the movie while empathizing with its characters—all strong, complex Asian-American women—were less likely to be biased against a group labeled “them” in a computer game, as opposed to “us.”

Or, we could have white people play dodgeball on a teams full of sportsmanlike African Americans—that too, has shown to reduce bias.

These are just a few examples of the myriad ways psychologists are trying to hack the human brain to be less prejudiced.

Most people harbor biases against other races and genders, whether they admit to them or not. And as the events of recent weeks (and frankly, centuries) underscore, societal bias against African Americans is perhaps most pervasive and harmful of all.

African-Americans face discrimination in almost every facet of life. People with black-sounding names are less likely to be invited for interviews by prospective employers or even to stay in apartments by AirBnb hosts.

White people shown images of a black 5-year-old boy, and then a toy, are more likely to miscategorize the toy as a weapon...

When Solid Data Isn’t Enough

I’ll never forget an incident early in my career, working in the Texas legislature, when a pair of academics testified about their statistical analysis for improving the funding distribution for school bus grants to school districts across the state. They used regression analyses to demonstrate a more efficient and fairer way to allocate the aid. But a state legislator was enraged. He asked how he was supposed to explain “this statistical mumbo-jumbo” (actually, his language was more colorful) to parents in his school district when they complained about why their kids couldn’t ride a bus to school.

It’s not just an academic vs. policymaker divide. In looking back, the financial information generated by the 1990 Chief Financial Officers Act and the performance information generated by the 1993 Government Performance and Results Act have had little impact on policy decisions, especially in Congress. The lesson: having technical experts in agencies creating a supply of information is not enough; there needs to be a demand for it, as well.

Up until recently, academics and scientists also felt that creating a supply and improving the quality of studies and research would be enough for policymakers to pay more attention to...

There’s an App to Treat Insomnia That Seems to Actually Work

As you go to bed, imagine being told in a gentle, soothing Scottish accent just what you need to do to improve your sleep. It’s nice even for those, like me, who don’t have sleep problems. That’s the promise of Sleepio, an app that provides personalized therapy to fix your sleep problems.

More than one in 10 people suffers from some form of insomnia. So any insomnia therapy that is easy to access, relatively cheap, and actually works has huge potential.

Peter Hames, the co-founder of Big Health, the company behind Sleepio, says the evidence that it works comes in the form of three small but rigorous studies. As further evidence, he says that more than 500,000 employees worldwide have access to Sleepio as a benefit paid for by their employers.

Meet the Prof

Sleepio’s smartphone app uses a character called “the Prof,” who analyzes your data—such as age, profession, sleep patterns, and sleep problems—and then tailors his advice accordingly. The audio snippets seem pre-recorded, but they appear in varying order based on the data that you feed into the app.

For example, I pretended to have some sleep problems when answering Sleepio...

The Government Buys $2 Trillion Worth of Stuff Every Year. Here Are 5 Ways To Do It Better

Every year, thousands of professionals at all levels of government in the United States execute contracts to buy $2 trillion in public goods and services, ranging from fighter jets to professional services to office supplies. Their work is crucial, yet too often we learn that the public procurement system is at the heart of government breakdowns such as the launch of or cost overruns in the development of the F-22 fighter. These headlines lead to grandstanding and finger-pointing, but fail to offer a clear sense of what skills those professionals need to effectively manage taxpayer dollars, and where progress is most needed.

That’s why the Volcker Alliance—launched by Paul A. Volcker to address the challenge of effective execution of public policies and to help rebuild public trust in government—teamed with Censeo Consulting Group and Public Spend Forum to conduct a study to develop a draft competency framework laying out the core skills of an effective procurement workforce. We conducted detailed interviews of 43 leaders with deep experience in the procurement community—including practitioners at all levels, public affairs scholars, private and public sector procurement thought leaders, and government suppliers—to get their impressions on how...

The Bipartisan Forces that Could Stifle Government Innovation

In his excellent book, Delivering on Digital (Rosetta Books, 2016), William Eggers presents a compelling case for the many ways in which the government’s ability—and willingness—to embrace the digital age that dominates the broader economy can dramatically improve government service and efficiencies. Eggers’ work, and other related analyses, are of particular importance given the enormous role a smart digital strategy can play in solving some of our most pressing problems, not the least of which are ongoing resource limitations, which, regardless of the outcome of the November elections, will continue for the foreseeable future. Indeed, there is no doubt that technology today holds the potential for the kinds of major process, management and delivery changes that could play an outsized role in reducing the costs of government operations while also driving meaningful and much needed performance improvements.

This is a message that has resonated across scores of state and local governments and, as Eggers points out, in some unexpected nations, such as Estonia. But, while progress is being made, it remains a relatively nascent movement in the federal government.

It is reasonable to expect this message to be reinforced through the presidential elections. In fact, Hillary Clinton...

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