Using behavioral science is a way to increase satisfaction with government services

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It’s not often that a government website gets attention because it works. But that’s exactly what happened in mid-January, when rumors spread that covidtests.gov has been simple, effective and leave 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 improving customer service, as noted in a recent Executive Decree. Yet, amid the ambition and complexity of the order, one important aspect of it may have been overlooked: the way it showcases behavioral science as a key driver of a good customer experience.

In fact, the Executive Order actually follows in the footsteps of several others over the past 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 ties to the field of behavioral sciences.

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 the direction government services are taking?

Behavioral science studies how people’s actions are shaped by environmental and contextual factors. Based on rigorous testing and evaluation, the application of behavioral science insights to federal programs has been shown to improve outcomes. For example, customer experience was inspired by behavioral sciences to build trust in Veterans Affairs Departmental outpatient services, increase effectiveness of camping reservationsand improve taxpayer withholding estimates.

In 2015, President Obama signed the first Executive Order to Bring a Behavioral Perspective to the U.S. Federal Government. The ordinance brought to the fore the importance of evaluation in designing more effective policies. Using evaluation methods such as randomized controlled trials, which are often applied by behavioral scientists, can provide agencies with reliable evidence about which policy designs work in practice.

This order also officially created the social and behavioral science team and the Office of Evaluation Sciences. These teams have helped agencies identify opportunities in programs and policies to apply behavioral science to improve public well-being. For example, they partnered with the Department of Defense to promote a workplace savings plan among military service members. Nine versions of an email were tested, each applying a different behavioral science framework. The most effective email, which used a “Yes/No” framework, nearly doubled turnout. These initial efforts led to approximately 4,930 new registrations and $1.3 million in savings in just one month.

Applying evidence to real-world priorities and emphasizing strong evaluation are key elements of a behavioral insights approach (as the very name of the Office of Evaluation Science suggests) . These values ​​were also adopted by the 2018 bipartisan Foundations of Evidence-Based Policy Making Actled by former House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.

This legislation was a major step forward for data and evaluation transparency in federal agencies. In addition to requiring agencies to increase their capacity to assess and collect evidence, this law also restructured them. Federal government departments were required to appoint chief data officers, chief evaluation officers and experts in policy data analysis.

The new Biden administration then imposed these priorities through the 2021 memorandum on Scientific integrity and evidence-based policy makinggwho called on agencies to apply more best practices in collecting data and evidence to improve policies and implement equitable programs across all areas of government.

The two most recent decrees on Advance racial equity and support for underserved communities and Client experience build on this trend of using evidence, evaluation and behavioral science to improve processes and the accessibility of public services. The priorities and plans of the Racial Equity Directive are closely tied to behavioral science. For example, the order focuses on removing barriers that underserved communities face in accessing federal benefits and programs.

This task of identify and overcome barriers to action is a central mission of applied behavioral science, which often focuses on how to create desired behavior easy, attractive, social and timely. One of the recent priorities in the field has been to reduce “muda word that some behavioral scientists use to describe the frictions that impede access to services and opportunities. The concern about sludge comes through strongly in the Customer Experience Executive Order, as it highlights the “time tax” of “9 billion hours” of excess paperwork imposed on the public by federal agencies.

This multi-year commitment to evidence, evaluation and behavioral science is paying off. The new COVID testing website shows the difference applying behavioral science can make to reducing sludge. Designers focused on target behavior and removed barriers to that behavior by streamlining messaging, reducing required information, and removing clicks. The result? One of the federal government projects most visited pages.

A consistent lesson we learned from years of working with government agencies is that a radical simplification of messages and interfaces works. It’s both possible and really affects the way people interact with public services. Behavioral science can offer perspective to assess how people are likely to respond to programs, as well as evidence-based tools to improve 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 planning for retirement? Or how can government support communities with emergency preparedness through better messaging?

Over the past seven years, the federal government has built capacity and is committed to improving client service. The current need is to identify where the targeted use of these resources can have the most impact. Addressing this need will be crucial to ensure departments can meet their objectives and thereby build confidence in the government’s ability to deliver on its promises.

Lindsay Moore is a Senior Advisor at The Behavioral Insights Team, a social purpose enterprise that uses behavioral science to help address public policy challenges. Lila Tublin is content writer for the team and Michael Hallsworth is managing director.

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