Using Behavioral Science is One Way to Increase Satisfaction With Government Services
The success of the new federal COVID test kit website shows what behavioral science can offer to help make services more accessible.
It’s not often that a government website attracts attention because it works. But that is exactly what happened in mid-January, as word spread that Covidtests.gov was simple, effective and left users feeling pretty good.
The site allowing Americans to order free COVID-19 test kits to be delivered to their door embodies the Biden administration’s commitment to improved customer service, as set out in a recent executive order. Yet, amid the order’s ambition and complexity, one important aspect of it may have been overlooked—the way it presents behavioral science as a core driver of good customer experience.
In fact, the executive order is actually following in the footsteps of several others over the last seven years informed, at least in part, by behavioral science. These include the 2015 order on Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People and another 2021 order on Advancing Racial Equity with strong connections to the field of behavioral science.
So, what does this new executive order mean when it states that “these previous actions have laid an important foundation” for its proposals—and how does this history highlight where government services are going?
Behavioral science studies how people’s actions are shaped by environmental and contextual factors. Grounded in rigorous testing and evaluation, applying behavioral science insights to federal programs has been shown to be effective in improving outcomes. For example, customer experience has borrowed from the behavioral sciences to build trust in Veterans Affairs Department outpatient health care services, increase efficiency of campsite bookings, and improve taxpayer withholding estimations.
In 2015, President Obama signed the first executive order to bring a behavioral perspective to the U.S. federal government. The order brought to the foreground the importance of evaluation to design more effective policies. Using evaluation methods such as randomized controlled trials, which are often applied by behavioral scientists, can offer agencies reliable evidence on what policy designs work in practice.
This order also formally established the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and the Office of Evaluation Sciences. These teams helped agencies identify opportunities in programs and policies to apply behavioral science to improve public welfare. For instance, they partnered with the Defense Department to promote a workplace savings plan among military service members. Nine versions of an email were tested, each of which applied a different behavioral science framework. The most effective email, which used a “Yes/No” framework, nearly doubled the rate of participation. These initial efforts led to roughly 4,930 new enrollments and $1.3 million in savings in just one month.
The application of evidence to real-world priorities and a focus on robust evaluation are key components of a behavioral insights approach (as shown in the name of the Office of Evaluation Sciences itself). These values were also embraced by 2018’s bipartisan Foundations for Evidence-Based Policymaking Act, led by former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
This legislation was a major step forward for transparent data and evaluation in federal agencies. In addition to requiring agencies to increase their evaluation and evidence-building capacity, this act also restructured them. Departments across the federal government were required to appoint chief data officers, chief evaluation officers and experts in analyzing policy data.
The new Biden administration then enforced these priorities through the 2021 Memorandum on Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking, which called on agencies to apply more best practices on data and evidence-building to improve policies and deliver equitable programs in every area of government.
The two most recent executive orders on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities and Customer Experience build on this trend of using evidence, evaluation, and behavioral science to enhance processes and public service accessibility. The priorities and plans in the racial equity directive are closely tied to behavioral science. For instance, the order emphasizes removing the barriers that underserved communities face in accessing benefits and federal programs.
This task of identifying and addressing barriers to action is a central mission of applied behavioral science, which often focuses on how to make a desired behavior easy, attractive, social and timely. One of the recent priorities in the field has been to reduce “sludge,” a word some behavioral scientists use to describe frictions that impede access to services and opportunities. The concern with sludge comes through strongly in the customer experience executive order, as it underscores the “time tax” of “9 billion hours” in excess paperwork imposed on the public by federal agencies.
This multi-year commitment to evidence, evaluation, and behavioral science is bearing fruit. The new COVID tests website shows the difference that applying behavioral science can make to reducing sludge. Designers have focused on the target behavior and removed the barriers to that behavior by streamlining messages, reducing information requirements and removing clicks. The result? One of the federal government’s most visited pages.
A consistent lesson we have learned from years of working with government agencies is that a radical simplification of messages and interfaces works. It is both possible—and really does affect the way that people interact with public services. Behavioral science can offer a lens for assessing how people are likely to react to programs, as well as evidence-based tools for improving their experience.
For example, can website navigation be improved to increase equity and access to unemployment insurance? What additional online tools or calculators could be created to help people plan for retirement? Or how can the government support communities with emergency preparedness through better messaging?
Over the past seven years, the federal government has established the capabilities and secured commitment to improve customer service. The need right now is to identify where targeted use of these resources can make the most impact. Meeting this need will be crucial for ensuring departments can fulfill their purposes, and, in turn, build faith in the government’s ability to deliver.
Lindsay Moore is principal advisor at The Behavioral Insights Team, a social purpose company that uses behavioral science to help address public policy challenges. Lila Tublin is content writer for the team and Michael Hallsworth is managing director.