Small tweaks, big results
The White House team, created and led by Maya Shankar, a cognitive neuroscientist, partnered with an array of government agencies including the Departments of Defense, Education and Agriculture, to turn behavioral insights into more effective policy. As she puts it:
It’s not enough to simply design good federal programs. We have to make sure that those programs effectively reach the very people they are designed to serve. Behavioral science teaches us that even small barriers to accessing programs, whether it is a complicated form or burdensome application process, can have disproportionate negative impacts on participation rates.
The trials documented in the report generally aimed to streamline access to existing government programs and improve efficiency. The focus was on projects in which minute, low-cost changes built on very basic psychological concepts could lead to immediate, quantifiable improvements in outcomes and produce large shifts in behavior.
In one such effort, the team worked with the Department of Defense to increase enrollment in a retirement program for service members. The SBST modified emails sent to members who weren’t enrolled, more clearly describing the steps required to sign up and emphasizing the benefits of saving even just a little bit each month. As a result, the number of service members who enrolled in the program increased by 67%.
Generally the team tried to identify areas in which there was a breakdown in the effectiveness of policies that could potentially be improved with behavioral insights. And although the interventions were based on existing findings in fields like psychology and behavioral economics, the SBST rigorously evaluated the outcomes using randomized controlled trials, allowing them to evaluate which ones produced their intended effect and how strong those effects actually were.
Other projects were a little more ambitious in the behavioral insights employed, although they still made only minimal tweaks to the way policies were implemented.
For instance, federal vendors – who pay a small fee of 0.75% to the government based on self-reported sales – were asked to sign at the beginning of their declaration form attesting that they were providing accurate information. Compared with vendors who did not sign (the existing status quo), those who signed reported slightly more sales (US$445 on average). Although that may seem modest, the intervention was virtually costless and generated $1.59 million in revenue in the third quarter of 2014 alone.