Obama directs agencies to use behavioral science

Shutterstock image: circuitry of a digital brain.

The White House is directing agencies to use behavioral science to revamp customer service and reach people more effectively.

President Barack Obama signed an executive order Sept. 15 requiring agencies to use behavioral science data to design government policies “to reflect our best understanding of how people engage with, participate in, use, and respond to those policies and programs.”

The executive order asks agencies to identify programs where applying behavioral science insights could improve public welfare, program outcomes and costs.

It’s part of an ongoing effort in the administration to change the way agencies reach customers.

The White House launched the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team last year. Several of SBST’s pilot programs demonstrate the use of “nudge theory,” an aspect of behavioral science that involves “nudging” citizens in a certain direction using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions.

In one of the pilot programs, SBST worked with the Farm Service Agency to notify farmers about the availability of microloans. The FSA sent a new outreach letter to randomly selected zip codes providing information about the program, a shortened URL to reach the site, and customized contact information for loan officers in the farmer's own county.

The SBST also helped the Department of Defense redesign emails sent to service members regarding a change in their savings plans. DOD made the language more concise, listed action steps, and personalized the emails and subsequently doubled the rate of enrollment. DOD also highlighted to veterans that they had earned an education and career-counseling benefit instead of just notifying them of their eligibility, which led to a nearly 9 percent increase in veterans accessing the DOD application for this benefit.

Another example of behavioral science research at work involves eight personalized text messages sent to low-income students and their parents reminding them about financial aid paperwork. The SBST says the texts boosted college enrollment among low-income students by 9 percent.

The executive order directs federal agencies to take action in four areas:

-- Streamlining access to programs: Agencies should look for opportunities to help qualifying individuals, families, and businesses access programs and benefits by streamlining processes that may otherwise limit participation.

-- Improving the presentation of information: Agencies should look for opportunities to improve how the government presents information to consumers, borrowers, and program beneficiaries by giving greater consideration to ways in which information format, timing, and medium can affect understanding.

-- Structuring choices carefully: Where programs and policies offer choices, agencies should carefully consider how the presentation and structure of those choices, including default settings and the number and arrangement of options, can empower participants to make the best choices for themselves and their families.

-- Considering a full range of incentives: Where policies create incentives to take specific actions, such as saving for retirement, agencies should consider how the frequency, presentation, and labeling of benefits, tax credits, and other incentives can more effectively and efficiently promote those actions, with a specific focus on opportunities to use nonfinancial incentives.

About the Author

Bianca Spinosa is an Editorial Fellow at FCW.

Spinosa covers a variety of federal technology news for FCW including workforce development, women in tech, and the intersection of start-ups and agencies. Prior to joining FCW, she was a TV journalist for more than six years, reporting local news in Virginia, Kentucky, and North Carolina. Spinosa is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Writing at George Mason University, where she also teaches composition. She earned her B.A. from the University of Virginia.

Click here for previous articles by Spinosa, or connect with her on Twitter: @BSpinosa.


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