Why Agencies Need to Tap the Revolutionary Potential of Behavioral Science

Traditional policy tools, such as taxes, subsidies and regulations, are not always very effective in changing social behavior.

The field of behavioral science has evolved significantly over the past 30 years, but most of the benefits have accrued to private sector marketers and economists. Nonetheless, governments are starting to see the benefits of applying the field’s insights. According to Apolitical, an international online magazine covering the public sector, “over the past nine years, a revolution has been spreading through governments around the world. Today, over 200 public bodies are using a combination of behavioural science, economics and psychology to craft better policy.”

This “revolution” is happening in parallel to several other related efforts to connect the use of evidence and experimentation to policy and practice: performance measurement, program evaluation, design thinking, the use of agile principles, and the expanded use of data and analytics.

What Is the potential? Because it is inherently a multi-disciplinary field, behavioral science insights have the potential to reinforce the broader trends of connecting evidence and experimentation to policy and practice. They are probably not a standalone “solution” but rather a more sophisticated and nuanced set of techniques that can supplement or be an alternative to other traditional policy and analytic tools. This is seen in how practitioners have integrated their use into city or agency policy, evaluation, or innovation offices.

Thus far, most applications of behavioral science in government have been limited to incremental improvements in program performance, such as revising the wording on an official form to improve compliance. But the potential is there to develop a powerful set of tools to significantly improve the performance of government programs.

Governments have traditionally used policy tools such as taxes, subsidies, or regulation to influence social behavior. But those tools alone are not always very effective in driving the desired outcomes. Consequently, policymakers are beginning to recognize the value of incorporating behavioral insights into their formulations. For example, recently-introduced federal legislation would establish an interagency body to identify and leverage the social determinants of health (e.g., reducing obesity, smoking, alcohol abuse). Successful implementation will depend on effectively employing behavioral science. 

According to an overview prepared for Washington State government leaders, the use of behavioral science techniques may be most effective in cases where:

  • The desired outcome is largely driven by personal choices,
  • The choices you wish to influence occur frequently, or over a long period of time, or
  • The desired outcome, while in the distant future, is driven by choices made now.

Who could use it? As noted in earlier blog posts, behavioral science techniques are being applied in a range of policy areas by many different government players. Peter John, in a recent book, How Far to Nudge, makes the case that behavioral science should not be just a tool of technocrats but decentralized to agencies and local governments to incorporate into their own autonomous activities where it “can help the creation of an automated and self-regulating system whereby people get to their goals and where there is a synergy between social and individual aims.”

To that end, I envision behavioral science techniques being useful to:

  • Policy and program design analysts, to expand their range of policy levers beyond the traditional tools of regulations, mandates, market mechanisms and tax incentives.
  • Customer experience officers, to better understand and improve how agency clients interact with programs.
  • Design teams, agility teams, and innovation offices, to develop better programs and solutions. 
  • Citizen engagement teams, to identify ways to elicit greater participation and response.
  • Chief risk officers, to assess or manage risks in implementing programs.
  • Chief human capital officers, to improve employee engagement.
  • Chief cybersecurity officers, to predict potential weaknesses in how people might be tricked into installing malware, etc.
  • Program evaluation officers, to assess why programs may not be delivering results as anticipated.

How Far Can We Go?  

While behavioral science has been around for a number of years in different pockets of government, how far might its use expand?  How does it fit into the context of traditional policy and implementation tools?

There may be more questions than answers at this point with regard to the need for more proof or validation. But the federal Office of Evaluation Sciences, for example, has been very good at being transparent about its projects, describing both what works and what doesn’t. It certainly can’t be accused of painting targets around the bullet holes.

There are opportunities to expand the use of behavioral science to improve the probabilities of successful program design and implementation, but more research is probably needed to show how these approaches can be applied in the context of  the Administrative Procedures Act. For example, behavioral science approaches to program design assume more iterative, test-and-fix processes, as opposed to a traditional linear approach. The two approaches require different skill sets as well—data analysts, vs. legal analysts, for example. 

In the meantime, the best approach is to keep experimenting and engage a range of different talents to make programs more effective.