A retrospective on Nudgeapalooza 2016

From ordering Domino’s Pizza to improving child support compliance, the inaugural Nudgeapalooza conference in Washington, D.C., late last year provided as eclectic of an offering as the name would imply. For one November day, a diverse community of academics, policy makers, and Deloitte consultants gathered to explore some of governments’ toughest issues through the lens of behavioral science.

And like any good “palooza,” the speakers, presentation formats, and topics rapidly shifted course throughout the day while still maintaining its central theme – behavioral science for public policy. The Nudgeapalooza featured a rapid-fire sequence of keynote speakers, flash talks, and group exercises to explore how data science and nudges can work in tandem to address vexing issues spurring from return-to-work programs, prison recidivism, and Medicare Part D enrollments (just to name a few).

The consultants

Deloitte’s Chief Data Scientist Jim Guszcza set the stage with a Nudge 101 overview. Armed with insights from the field, Guszcza laid out the unprecedented opportunity we are afforded to combine data, digital platforms, and behavioral nudges to accomplish the same objectives conveyed by President Obama—that is, to make government a more accessible and pleasant experience.

Up next was Ruth Schmidt from Deloitte’s Doblin design-thinking team to discuss how to actually make it happen. Schmidt walked through a behavioral design framework that captures instances of nudging in cases as varied as transportation services and unemployment insurance programs.

The academics

Six professors, representing six universities, covered six unique topics. And with each presentation, the audience was exposed to a new dimension of how the behavioral sciences can inform their programs.

Kicking-off the first keynote, co-editor of Behavioral Science and Policy and faculty member at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, Craig Fox introduced the audience to “Choice Architecture 2.0.” In his talk, he gave a new take on an old concept, the Hawthorne effect. What was once considered a bug in experimental methodology (people change behavior due to being observed) is now a choice architecture feature (doctors prescribe a higher percentage of generic drugs if they know their behavior is observed).

If the Hawthorne effect describes how we use transparency to influence decision-making, Mike Norton from Harvard Business School pivoted this discussion to show how transparency can also engender good will between citizens and government agencies. In his keynote address, Norton connected the power (and fun!) of the Domino’s Pizza Tracker to Boston’s Citizens Connect app; where residents can effortlessly report public issues, like potholes, and easily see how quickly the city addresses the problem. In short, a transparent government leads to greater citizenship engagement and hopefully, goodwill.



An example from the Citizens Connect app in action

In between these keynotes was a flurry of flash-talks. Carrying-on the theme of citizen engagement, Adam Levine of Cornell University discussed how the language used by politicians and media to describe policies and social problems directly affects the political attitudes people hold.

The same principles used to encourage citizen engagement transfer over to employee engagement as well. Reb Rebele from Wharton People Analytics explained how behavioral science can help organizations better cultivate employee engagement. This could mean reducing the influence of unconscious biases in the workforce or simply make it easier for employees to fully utilize their PTO.

Diving deeper into the behavioral policy toolkit, Dave Nussbaum of the University of Chicago unpacked what makes for a good nudge. He pointed out that often nudging is not a matter of pushing people to do something they’d rather not do, but simply making it easier for them to follow through on the things they already want to do. The key points: start by understanding the situation, consider the ethical implications, and keep in mind that small changes can have disproportionately large effects.

And like any good discussion on behavioral policy, we covered health incentives and motivation. Justin Sydnor from the University Of Wisconsin School Of Business illustrated that when it comes to matters of health and exercise, as humans, we all relate to Homer Simpson on some level. Fortunately though, nudges such as commitment contracts can mitigate our inner-Homers.

The practitioners

Not to be overshadowed, three prominent behavioral science practitioners took time to explain how they are directly applying behavioral insights within the public sector at the city and state levels.

David Yokum, the Director at The Lab @ DC, leads a scientific team within the Executive Office of the Mayor of the District of Columbia Government. Applying evidence-based techniques, Yokum’s Lab @ DC is making government a bit more fun for its residents. And if Nudgeapalooza isn’t enough for you, the District of Columbia is hosting a Formapalooza to make complex government forms more human(e) for the citizens that interact with them.

Taking these concepts even further, Elizabeth Linos from the Behavioral Insights Team gave countless examples of cities both large and small using behavioral policy to inform public initiatives. These include tripling police applicants and improving diversity in cities such as Chattanooga, and increasing the number of businesses filing their taxes online in Denver. At the state level, Nadine Dechausay from MDRC expressed how many of these same principles bolstered child support compliance in Washington, Texas, and Ohio.


The Behavioral Insights Team’s
most effective postcard message


What’s next?

At its core, Nudgeapalooza was about building a community of behavioral policy practitioners. Some encouraging evidence came from the final report out on the “path ahead.” Acting almost as a meta-commitment device, the day ended with over sixty people, many exposed to behavioral science for the first time only eight hours earlier, articulating nudge-inspired hypotheses for a wide array of government programs.

If the real intention of Nudgeapalooza was to help an entire audience see public policy through a new lens, then I’d suggest that this nudge met its objective.

On to Nudgeapalooza 2017! Stay tuned for the announcement.

By James Guszcza and Tim Murphy

Where to find more

Didn’t get to attend Nudgeapalooza or just want to learn more? These resources offer a number of examples of how behavioral economics can be weaved into both public and private policy issues:

For those interested in contributing to Nudgeapalooza 2017 email us at [email protected]
with your ideas.