Behavioral Science problem-solving in the U.S. Government
On 15 September, President Obama signed an executive order “…that directs all Federal Agencies to use insights from the behavioral sciences to make government programs easier to access, more user-friendly, and more effective.”
Maya Shankar, the leader of the White House’s Social and Behavioral Science Team, describes the program in a blog post:
“Building on the past year of successes, the SBST is launching 20 new projects in the upcoming year, focused on everything from helping children retain access to nutritionally-balanced, low-cost or free lunches, to providing unemployed workers with enhanced job-search support.”
The projects to date all appear to be planning and design problems—redesigning components of existing systems.
In terms of the Model for Improvement [link here and here], the insights from behavioral science are change ideas, which dominate the presentation on the SBST website.
But as readers of this blog know, while ideas are necessary for change that leads to improved performance, they're not sufficient.
You need clear aims and measures of performance along with the change ideas to increase the odds that you will improve performance.
And then you need test cycles, following the sequence Plan-Do-Study-Act, to show the extent to which the change idea works and what people need to do to adapt the change to make it stick in a range of circumstances.
As noted in SBST’s first annual report, Ms Shankar’s team, as applied scientists, essentially use the Model for Improvement—they understand aims, measures, and test cycles to demonstrate impact. Here's what they say about testing:
“As a result, this process of translation [from academic research findings to pragmatic program solutions] requires constant evaluation and feedback. SBST works with agencies to, where possible, rigorously test the impact of these insights on program outcomes before implementing them widely. In this way, SBST can learn about what works, what works best, and what does not work. “ (p. 5 2015 Annual report)
You can sign up on the SBST web site to get updates from the program (scroll all the way to the bottom).
PS A Change idea: I wonder if SBST would get more sign ups if they moved the sign up box to the top of the web page? They could run a test!