The White House Is Now Using Behavioral Economics to Improve Policy

3 minute read

Last week, President Obama signed an executive order officially codifying a new group called the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

The team has been around for a year, but the announcement gave official recognition to the new group, which aims to apply insights gleaned from behavioral science to policy. “We built the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team with the belief that Americans are best served when programs are easy to access,” says Maya Shankar, PhD, head of the project and senior advisor for the social and behavioral sciences at the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. “Forms should be simple. Processes should be simple. And the consequences are much larger than we think.”

This suggests that the White House is taking behavioral economics—an increasingly popular field exploring the intersection between human behavior, decision-making and incentives—to the policymaking table. The hope, according to Shankar, is that an influx of behavioral insights will make it easier for people to file their taxes, for veterans to be re-employed in civilian life, and maybe even for all of us to become invested enough in climate change.

One of the projects they’ve begun to tackle is the process of applying for college financial aid. Just the anxiety of filling out the form can lead to application delays or foregoing college altogether, Shankar says. The agency paired up with the Department of Education to send a series of personalized text messages to remind them to fill out forms, leading to a 5.7% increase in college enrollment.

“That’s the beauty of behavioral science,” says Shankar. “We’ve worked with over a dozen different agencies: farmers accessing microloans, helping service members, helping low-income families.”

The administration isn’t the first to use behavioral science techniques to make the government more efficient and responsive to constituent concerns. The UK has a similar outfit—the Behavioural Insights Team—jointly owned by the British government and expert in using behavioral economics to “nudge” people. In a recent Freakonomics Radio episode, Simon Ruda of the Behavioural Insights Team discusses how sending a letter to delinquent taxpayers telling them that 90% of their community had paid taxes sparked them into action.

The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team has already had some successes, and the solutions are often simple and require little to no investment, according to a report. When they sent a reminder email to 100,000 student loan borrowers who had missed their first payment, they saw a 29.6% increase in borrowers who made a payment.

Another easy nudge they used was to program an annoying dialog box to pop up any time an employee at the USDA’s Economic Research Service tried to print. (The average government employee prints about 30 pages a day, or roughly 18 billion pages per year.) The box told users they could make the annoyance disappear by simply switching their printing preferences from single-sided to double-sided paper. Double-sided printing went up about 6%.

Not every experiment was a success. But Shankar is confident that simple nudges, like a pop-up box or carefully worded email, can have huge impacts on getting the government do its job better and leading people to more efficient government services. “It can be a lasting endeavor,” Shankar says. “And it’s something that both sides of the aisle can agree on.”

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