Andrew Harnik/AP

Obama Tells Agencies to Hire Experts in Giving People Exactly What They Want

Recruitment effort part of initiative to improve delivery of services across government.

President Obama on Tuesday unveiled a plan to make agencies use hard evidence to deliver services to Americans in ways that are easier to understand and result in better, more informed choices by program recipients.

Obama’s executive order formally established the White House’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and tasked agencies across government with finding the means to simplify access to their services and incentivize better decision making by end users. Part of that process will require a new emphasis by agencies to recruit behavioral scientists into their ranks.

Federal agencies specifically must identity opportunities to streamline access to programs, improve the presentation of information, clarify choices available to program users and create incentives for the users to take beneficial actions. Such changes can range from simply redesigning forms, the White House said, to automatically enrolling individuals in benefits such as retirement programs.

“The federal government administers a wide array of programs on behalf of the American people, such as financial aid to assist with college access and workplace savings plans to promote retirement security,” the White House wrote in a fact sheet on the launch. “Americans are best served when these programs are easy to access and when program choices and information are presented clearly. When programs are designed without these considerations in mind, Americans can incur real consequences.”

As part of its rollout, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team -- which is housed in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy -- released a report on the initial results from projects it has already undertaken. One such project involved creating better incentives for military service members to enroll in the Thrift Savings Plan. Unlike civilian federal workers, military personnel do not automatically participate in the TSP. To encourage enrollment, the Defense Department created simplified emails to send to uniformed personnel and launched a pilot program that made some individuals choose “yes” or “no” for the TSP when they arrived at a new base, both of which led to higher participation rates.

Other new behavioral practices included:

  • The Education Department sending a series of text messages to Federal Student Aid recipients to remind them of all the steps they needed to complete their college enrollment
  • The Veterans Affairs Department reformatting notices to veterans informing them of their eligibility for education and career counseling services so they emphasized the veterans had earned the benefit
  • The Agriculture Department sending personalized letters to farmers to notify them of loan options
  • The Health and Human Services Department encouraging individuals that started applying for health insurance to finish the process

All of those initiatives boosted the usage rates of the departments’ programs. Other efforts, such as those at the General Services Administration and Treasury Department, successfully improved integrity and compliance with programs across government. Another program created a pop-up box that asked federal employees to default their printer setting to double-sided, and based on the acceptance rate, printers will now be defaulted to print on two sides.

The White House hosted a series of panels and speakers on Tuesday to share their experiences with creating behavioral science-based policy. It also announced more than 20 news projects based on research from its behavioral sciences team to produce better outcomes for program users. One such initiative will be a stronger encouragement of federal employees to maximize their agencies’ matching contributions into their TSP accounts.

More than a dozen think tanks and universities have agreed to conduct additional research and testing to ultimately deliver white papers on other applications of behavioral science that can be implemented at the federal level “in the near term,” the White House announced. OSTP and the behavioral science team also created new guidance for agencies to help them redesign forms so they are easier for people to fill out. 

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