Public Policies for Humans by Professor Matthew G. Nagler

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This past summer I served as an Academic Affiliate of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST). A cross-agency group of applied behavioral scientists authorized to advise Federal agencies by an Executive Order of President Obama, SBST applies findings from the social and behavioral sciences to improve Federal policies and programs. For me – an economist whose research incorporates psychological research findings into models of economic behavior – this gig offered an opportunity to see directly how my research interests could be put to real-world use. SBST’s job is an important one. Many Federal programs face serious challenges when it comes to the way in which real-live people interact with them. Websites often present constituents with information about Federal programs that is daunting to read and sort through. Intended beneficiaries often fail to find out about key Federal programs, causing the money allocated to help them to go unutilized or to go to people whose need is not as great. Perhaps you can recall a time when someone told you about a Federal program you should consider taking advantage of, but you didn’t because you feared having to navigate the various web pages, publications, and forms. SBST’s task is to provide Federal agencies the help they need to make government work better for real humans, so that we humans can benefit more – and more easily – from what government does.

The key to SBST’s strategy is to leverage what we know about human behavior. People are not perfect, rational information-processing machines. Our attention is limited. We respond differently when the same information content is displayed or framed in different ways. The accumulated understanding of social and behavioral scientists provides pathways for making policy tools and government communications more effective. SBST’s standard approach is to propose behaviorally-informed interventions, test them, and then implement the most successful interventions. (These interventions are what have sometimes been popularly referred to as “nudges.”)

One prominent example of an SBST intervention arose from the recognition that only 44% of military service members were enrolled in the Federal retirement plan, TSP, as compared to 87% of civilian Federal employees. The trouble was service members changed bases frequently and so never had the wherewithal to focus on TSP enrollment. To boost participation, the Department of Defense and SBST tested having service members make an active “yes” or “no” choice to enroll upon their arrival at a new base. The behavioral research suggests that “forcing an issue” can make it salient, inducing individuals to take actions they intended to but did not focus on. The test led to an increase in TSP enrollments of 8.3 percentage points. DOD has not yet implemented this intervention everywhere, but SBST estimates that when they do the benefits to service members could be quite substantial.

During the summer I worked on designing exploratory interventions relating to healthcare, secondary education programs for homeless students, and transportation safety. These projects paired me with agency partners at the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Transportation. I found I needed to take account of not only the limitations of the real humans who were trying to navigate Federal programs, but also those imposed by the realities of the Federal bureaucracy. The work was not easy. Sometimes Federal agencies were resistant to doing things in new ways. Often the data I needed in order to figure out the best way forward was simply not available. And the summer was short: there was not enough time for me to champion an intervention from start to finish. But I did get the chance to get the ball rolling on several initiatives, and I contributed directly on many more.

Two proud moments for me were SBST’s planning retreat in mid-August and the release of our 2016 Annual Report in mid-September. At the first event, I got to work with my team colleagues on SBST’s plans for the future – what we thought we could best accomplish and how we might go about it. At the second event, I got to reflect on my team’s significant achievements during the past year. Both gave me a chance to get the “big picture” with respect to what I was doing and to appreciate that I was a part of something meaningful. When I talk to my students about my experience in Washington this summer, what I will try to convey to them is what I saw firsthand: that by working earnestly and applying one’s capabilities toward a worthy goal, a person can truly make a difference.

[1] The opinions expressed in this article are my own, offered in my personal academic capacity, and are not the views of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.