By Steve Kelman

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'Nudge' your way to better government management

Shutterstock image (by Makkuro GL): crowdsourcing innovation.

Earlier this week, the White House issued an executive order titled "Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People." Despite its wonky, jargony title -- when I linked to the EO on my Facebook page, some friends said the text reeked of academia and of people who'd never actually managed a government program -- there is real meat in it. The order reflects, as does the larger and somewhat related movement for "evidence-based government," a laudable effort to harness research knowledge to government performance.

The behavioral insights to which the EO refers generally involve findings that people's choices are influenced by the wording of a message, the way alternatives are presented and what the default decision option is. And because all messages have an impact, government cannot escape by simply saying it will be neutral in its messaging -- hence the recommendation that government "nudge" people in the direction of making decisions seen as more socially beneficial.

The nudge idea has mostly been applied to improving policy outcomes such as encouraging people to save for retirement or kids to do their homework. Cass Sunstein, who served for several years as director of the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, coauthored a book on the subject and sought to put the theory into practice at OIRA.

However, with some additional thought, one can imagine using similar techniques to improve employee performance and management outcomes within government agencies. A good example is an experiment conducted in the United Kingdom by Elizabeth Linos, the head of research and evaluation at the North America unit of the UK Behavioral Insights Team. (This experiment was called to my attention by the Volcker Alliance, an organization that seeks to improve government management.)

The purpose of the experiment was to see whether a simple message intervention could improve the performance of minority applicants for jobs with the British police, which is trying to improve minority representation on the force. The researchers focused on one element of the test, called a Situational Judgment Test, in which the difference in performance between white and minority applicants had been greatest.

Applicants were randomly divided into a control group and a treatment group. The control group received the same message the police had already been using, which began: "You have been invited to complete the following online assessment: Police Constable Situational Judgment Test."

By contrast, the letter to the treatment group stated: "Congratulations! You successfully completed the Behavior Style Questionnaire and have been selected to participate in the next stage of the assessment process: the Situational Judgment Test. Before you start the test, I'd like you to take some time to think about why you want to be a police constable. For example, what is it about being a police constable that means the most to you and your community?"

How did the two groups of minority applicants do on the test? Just 40 percent of the control group passed, compared to 60 percent of the treatment group. So this very simple intervention could significantly increase minority representation in the British police. The parts of the test that were most affected by the intervention were communication/empathy and customer-focused decision-making.

The message, of course, is that the message makes a difference. And although the executive order's tone might have been a bit off-putting, it is definitely a message worth pondering.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 17, 2015 at 10:16 AM


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