Using behavioral science to improve interaction with government

President Obama signed an executive order yesterday that promotes using behavioral science to make the government more user-friendly and efficient:

The report features the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team’s first year of projects, which have made government programs easier to access and more user-friendly, and have boosted program efficiency and integrity. As a result of these projects, more Servicemembers are saving for retirement, more students are going to college, more Veterans are accessing their benefits, more farmers are obtaining credit, and more families are gaining healthcare coverage.

The Federal Government administers a wide array of programs on behalf of the American people, such as financial aid to assist with college access and workplace savings plans to promote retirement security. Americans are best served when these programs are easy to access and when program choices and information are presented clearly. When programs are designed without these considerations in mind, Americans can incur real consequences. One behavioral science study found, for example, that a complex application process for college financial aid not only decreased applications for aid, but also led some students to delay or forgo going to college altogether.

Behavioral science insights—research insights about how people make decisions—not only identify aspects of programs that can act as barriers to engagement, but also provide policymakers with insight into how those barriers can be removed through commonsense steps, such as simplifying communications and making choices more clear. That same study on financial aid found that streamlining the process of applying—by providing families with assistance and enabling families to automatically fill parts of the application using information from their tax return—increased the rates of both aid applications and college enrollment.

On one hand, the administration suggests this improves efficiency and helps people make use of the help available to them. On the other hand, there are predictable responses from the other side: “Obama issues Orwellian executive order.”

These are not new ideas. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (who tweeted the news of the executive order) wrote the 2008 book titled Nudge that makes policy recommendations based on such science. For example, instead of having people opt-in to programs like setting aside matched retirement savings or organ donor programs, change the default to opting out rather than opting in and see participation rates rise.

I imagine both parties might want to use this to their advantage (though it might might rile up the conservative base a bit more if it was made public) when promoting their own policies.

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