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Behavioral Science

Can changing the phrasing of a tax collection letter increase local government revenue? Can text messages from a health department encourage city residents to get a check-up? Can city school districts offering opt-out SAT testing during the school day (rather than opt-in on weekends) nudge more students toward applying for college?


By using behavioral science – the study of why people do things – to craft “nudges” or small tweaks to policies and programs that help increase the chances of a particular outcome, local governments can save money, improve services, and reach constituents in new ways. These highly successful, data driven approaches have the potential to improve health, strengthen education, and enhance local government programs. 


These approaches have been piloted, tested, and analyzed. Applying a behavioral science lens to city decisions, processes, and programs can result in cost-effective and testable approaches that can make significant impacts. By deconstructing large problems into the small, addressable moments that make or break success and then making tweaks informed by behavioral science to improve outcomes, little changes can have big impacts. 

Lessons from Building a Behavioral Science Initiative in City Government, Syon Bhanot, Anjali Chainani, and Yuan Huang, Behavioral Scientist, March 13th, 2018.

The Behavioral Insights Team Update Report 2016-17, The Behavioral Insights Team, October 19th, 2017.

Can Behavioral Science Help in Flint?, Sarah Stillman, The New Yorker, January 23rd, 2017.

Behavioral Insights for Cities, The Behavioral Insights Team, October 1st, 2016.

Behaviorists Show the U.S. How to Improve Government, Binyamin Appelbaum, The New York Times, September 29th, 2015. Read more.

The Rise of Nudge - The Unit Helping Politicians to Fathom Human Behaviour, Tamsin Rutter, The Guardian, July 23rd, 2015. Read more.

Surfacing the Submerged State with Operational Transparency in Government Services, Ryan W. Buell and Michael I. Norton, Harvard Business School, November 4th, 2013. Read more.

BIT Update Report: 2013 - 2015, The Behavioural Insights Team. Read more.

In 2014, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy assembled the Social & Behavioral Sciences Team, a cross-agency team organized under the National Science and Technology Council. Their 2015 Annual Report provides insight into the role that behavioral science plays in streamlining access to social programs - including retirement security, education, and healthcare - as well as improving federal government efficiency.
The Behavioural Insights Team applies behavioral sciences in an effort to help re-design public services. Read their guide, "EAST: Four Simple Ways to Apply Behavioural Insights," here.
The Behavioral Insights Group is a research program hosted by the Center for Public Leadership and Harvard Kennedy School. 

While applying behavioral science insights to public policy is a relatively new and innovative approach, cities have begun experimenting with tools to nudge residents toward better health, educational attainment, and more. New Orleans, LA saw an uptick in response rates to an automated text message reminder to seek out a free health screening after the Office of Performance and Accountability experimented with the most engaging phrasing. As a way to remove barriers for low-income students applying to college, New York, NY plans to offer the SAT free during school hours, removing the cost barrier but also using choice architecture to make this important college preparation step the default option rather than an opt-in decision.


Nudges and choice architecture aren’t the only ways to innovate with behavioral science – experimenting with other ways that government operations can align with behavioral realities of constituents can yield better and more democratically engaged performance. An experiment in Boston, MA found that residents who visited a webpage with the full status of the City’s responses (or delays in responding) to service requests had more positive views about government generally as well as expanding the scale of government programs after engaging with this more transparent display.


Katya Szabados
(608) 262-5831

Behavioral Science Cohort

We've partnered Harvard's Behavioral Insights Group to help our member cities test behavioral science solutions to address city challenges. Learn more here, or click below to view relevant webinars.


Behavioral Science for Cities, February 2018:


Nudges for Local Government, February 2017: