Last week, the government of Hawaii accidentally sent a massive alert to citizens warning of an impending ballistic missile attack. The message ended with the ominous warning “this is not a drill,” only to alert Hawaiians some 40 minutes later that the original missive had been sent in error. Point being: sometimes governments really send the wrong message.
This is of course a highly egregious and literal example of government messaging gone awry. But misarticulated or misunderstood government communications, even in more figurative circumstances with far less disastrous implications, can erode trust and derail well-intended initiatives.
The key to designing effective government-constituent interactions, according to a group of behavioral scientists and government leaders gathered at the Summit on Data-Smart Government, is understanding the behavior of the end users. Infusing behavioral science methods into government is distinct from traditional policy-making, often grounded on the “rational thinking” assumptions of traditional economics. These innovators outlined three key considerations for creating policies and strategies grounded in a robust understanding of user behavior.
Test the Language
Lindsay Moore from the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT), a UK-founded consultancy committed to using behavioral science to inform policy, started by sharing the language of a recruitment letter sent by a police department eager to increase and diversify its force. Eligible recruits read the following based on their education and professional competencies: “You appear to meet the minimum standard.” Message intended: “You could be a fit for a new career.” Message received: “You are not very good.”
BIT worked with the police department to test messages that would more effectively invite potential recruits to learn more about the opportunity, distributing postcards that focused variously on personal service and impact, a sense of ambition and drive, and a long-term career. Ultimately, contrary to the department’s intuition—which had favored language more oriented towards making an impact—the messaging focused on career longevity proved far more effective in recruitment efforts.
In addition to accessible language, sometimes a simple human touch is enough to nudge engagement, even at a cost to the constituent. Moore detailed how sending a postcard along with an overdue water bill markedly increased return payment. It’s amazing what a little delight can do.
Find the Friction
In identifying opportunities to optimize solutions backed by behavioral science, South Bend, Indiana’s Chief Innovation Officer Santiago Garces had simple but effective advice: find the friction points, especially under-utilization of resources.
South Bend, for instance, analyzed where its citizens were taking tax exemptions, and found a cluster of neighborhoods not taking advantage of the savings opportunity. The intervention was a simple mailer notifying residents of the exemption.
Low-cost solutions that can significantly shift constituent actions, Garces noted, foster greater understanding across departments about the potential of behavioral design to approach complex social issues, and greater willingness to consider systems-wide, novel solutions. He also added that behavioral design isn’t the single solution for any question of service optimization; instead, it’s a powerful tool that sits alongside solutions of human-centered design, lean process improvement, and advanced analytics. For small teams, however, it can be a powerful solution for testing and iterating solutions to most effectively meet constituents’ needs.
Reconsider the End User
Points of friction aren’t solely experienced by citizens, noted Andres Lazo, Director of Citizen-Centered Design in the City of Gainesville, Florida. Citizen behavior is of course essential to designing effective government solutions, but, Lazo emphasized, government innovators must empathize with employees before trying to empathize with residents. By understanding the experience of the people implementing at the ground level, governments can build a more comprehensive vision of a system’s gaps and friction points, for both providers and recipients, and ultimately harness the wisdom of its own workforce in designing behavior-driven interventions.
In Gainesville, city employees struggled to provide citizens with the resources required to start a small business. In response, based on the experiences of both employees and citizens, the city led a user-centered design process engaging both employee and resident stakeholders, resulting in an online portal with a variety of resources that reduced inefficiencies and promoted transparency.
Ultimately, behavior-driven solutions begin with a willingness to question assumptions, to listen to constituents, and invest in relationship-building across stakeholder groups. Each leader emphasized that without champions who evangelize the power of analyzing behavior and designing towards lived experience, these initiatives would stand little chance in the face of the status quo. When departments can show the results behind shifts in language, policy, and services based on behavioral analysis, governments increase their own capacity to engage in self-examination and experimentation – not simply for the purpose of avoiding disaster, but to improve services and reach new constituents.