On Tuesday President Barack Obama issued an executive order formally establishing the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team while also directing federal agencies to examine how they can use behavioral science to improve outcomes for citizens across the United States.
“Adopting the insights of behavioral science will help bring our government into the 21st century in a wide range of ways—from delivering services more efficiently and effectively to accelerating the transition to a clean energy economy; to helping workers find better jobs, gain access to educational opportunity, and lead longer, healthier lives,” Obama explained in a statement.
To mark Obama’s executive order, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted an informational event at the White House which featured remarks from Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, Harvard Professor and Nudge co-author Cass Sunstein, as well as a number of leaders of White House Policy Councils.
The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team’s mission is to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of government agencies, and its work is a key component of the current administration’s push for evidence-based policy.
Since 2014, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, often referred to as the ‘US Nudge Unit,’ has been working quietly within the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. The executive order formally establishes the team and the role it will play in the government—described in a memo issued yesterday to agencies throughout the government.
Yesterday, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team—led by Maya Shankar, a Senior Advisor at the Office of Science and Technology Policy—also issued its first annual report detailing findings from more than a dozen behavioral science initiatives it conducted over the past year.
In the report, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team describes the results of their efforts applying low-cost behavioral science insights to the work of a number of federal agencies including the departments of Education, Defense, Agriculture, and Veterans Affairs.
For example, they report partnering with the Department of Education to boost college enrollment of low-income students by over eight percent with a simple text-messaging program that helped students navigate the pre-enrollment requirements of their college.
Working with the Department of Defense, they report helping increase the number of servicemembers who signed up for a retirement savings plan through a simple email. They tested eight email variations along with a no email condition, which was the standard practice. Their most effective email nearly doubled the rate of enrollment in the plan. On the whole, the initiative helped add nearly five thousand new service members to the retirement plan in single month, helping them save $1.3 million.
“Common sense steps such as simplifying communications and increasing the clarity of choices can have a meaningful impact on who participates in Federal Programs.”
“[Behavioral science] can help inform the way we design federal programs to make them easier to use and more effective,” said Tom Kalil, deputy director for policy for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. “Common sense steps such as simplifying communications and increasing the clarity of choices can have a meaningful impact on who participates in Federal Programs.”
The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team was modeled off of the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team established by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010. Though the UK’s Behavioral Insights Team was initially met with skepticism, in 2014 its work applying behavioral science to solve policy and organization problems was in such high demand that it spun out of the UK government into a joint venture and has since expanded to over 60 employees.
The current Social and Behavioral Sciences Team consists of 16 members and has set its sights on 20 new initiatives for the coming year. One of the initiatives targets streamlining access to the free and reduced lunch program for all children who are eligible. Over 30 million low income students currently take part in the program annually.
Another project, in collaboration with USAID, hopes to end preventable child and maternal deaths by increasing attendance at doctors’ appointments and helping patients follow through on their prescribed treatments.
To stay up to date with the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team’s past and current work, you can view their newly launched website at sbst.gov.
Antonia Violante contributed reporting.