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Nudging Citizen Behavior Can Drive Positive Community Change

The United Kingdom's Behavioural Insights Team is helping U.S. municipalities improve outcomes by fostering initiatives centered around real human behaviors rather than long-held presumptions.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), a London-based organization jointly owned by its employees and the United Kingdom government, is now working with 30 U.S. cities, helping them create subtle influence programs with goals such as encouraging more minority candidates to apply to police departments or pushing eligible homeowners to use mortgage-related tax exemptions.

BIT is doing this work largely through the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies’ What Works Cities program, which offers financing and expertise to help local governments overcome obstacles and improve quality of life for residents. With support from What Works Cities, there are now 60 BIT programs under way in the U.S., and at the recent Summit on Data-Smart Government at Harvard University, an adviser from the organization detailed the philosophy that guides the work as well as the impact it can have for participating jurisdictions.

Lindsay Moore, speaking on a panel during the summit, said there are two lessons that guide BIT's work with cities: It is surprisingly easy to send the wrong message, and presumptions should be questioned. For example, she pointed to data showing that giving high school kids high-maintenance robotic babies actually leads to more teen pregnancies, even though common sense seems to dictate that a glimpse at responsibility would make kids more conscientious. The same, Moore said, is true of "scared straight" programs where troubled youth go to prisons to hear cautionary tales from the incarcerated. Common sense says the kids would behave better afterward, yet data shows this increases the likelihood of future imprisonment.

The key, then, is to not rely on seemingly obvious truisms, instead working based on data. The next step is to deploy subtle nudges that can better influence behavior and drive outcomes cities want to see.

As an example, Moore pointed to a program in Lexington, Ky., where there were 7,000 overdue water bills that totaled about $4 million. A nudge in this situation meant sending a mailer alerting people to their delinquency. Some of them included handwritten notes addressing recipients by name. In less than a month, the campaign resulted in the reconciliation of $139,000 in unpaid bills.

Santiago Garces, chief innovation officer of South Bend, Ind., described BIT's work in his city as “wizardry.” Using mapping, South Bend found that homeowners in low income areas were less likely to take advantage of mortgage-related tax exemptions they were entitled to. This is, in many ways, what behavioral influence looks like at its best: A hard data study upends a presumption (in this case, that lower income families would be most likely to pursue tax breaks) and city government subsequently works to nudge a behavioral change for the good of its residents.

Nudges aren’t limited to exerting public influence. Andres Lazo, director of citizen-centered design for Gainesville, Fla., said he was working to use the idea internally, a strategy Moore had seen deployed elsewhere to encourage employees to share efficiency ideas by offering incentives like recognition and prizes.

None of this is new thinking — in fact, private-sector marketing and advertising experts have used it for decades, and industry experts have begun to speak up at length in the past 18 months or so about its benefits. What is novel, however, is that more advanced data metrics make it easier for governments in places like South Bend and Gainesville to find pain points that subtle nudging can ease.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.