5 Tips for Launching (and Sustaining) a City Behavioral Design Team

Apr 25, 2018 | By ideas42 in Blog

For the past few years, we have been applying behavioral science to city programs and services in New York and Chicago to help the city government take into account complex human behavior, and the contexts in which we make decisions. We have embedded experts into agencies themselves—a model we call Behavioral Design Teams (BDTs)—to tackle challenges at the city level.

There are many reasons people may not use helpful services available to them—sometimes applications are onerous or simply not top-of-mind, or people may believe a program is not meant for someone like them even if they are eligible to receive benefits. Fortunately, behavioral design can make a meaningful difference when it comes to problems like these, and small behaviorally-informed changes are often cost-effective, or even cost-neutral.

We’ve been refining our approach to behavioral design teams through dozens of engagements across both cities, achieving great success and impact. Given the BDT model’s effectiveness in quickly identifying and addressing behavioral barriers within government programs and services, we want to see the number of BDTs grow in order to have as much positive impact on as many people’s lives as possible. However, we know that launching a new team within an existing system is difficult, particularly when goals and needs might be unclear.

To pave the way for other municipalities to start a Behavioral Design Team, we distilled years of rigorously tested results and real-world best practices into an open-source playbook for public servants at all levels of government. The playbook introduces readers to core concepts of behavioral design, indicates why and where a BDT can be effective, lays out the fundamental competencies and structures governments will need to set up a BDT, and provides guidance on how to successfully run one. It also includes several applicable examples from our New York and Chicago teams to illustrate the tangible impact behavioral science can have on citizens and outcomes.

Thinking about starting a BDT? Here are five tips for launching (and sustaining) a city behavioral design team. For more insights, read the full playbook.

Compose your team with care

While there is no exact formula, a well-staffed BDT needs expertise in three key areas: behavioral science, research and evaluation, and public policies and programs. You’ll rarely find all three in one person—hence the need to gather a team of people with complementary skills. Some key things to look for as you assemble your team: background in behavioral economics or social psychology, formal training in impact evaluation and statistics, and experience working in government positions or nonprofits that implement government programs.

Choose an anchor agency

To more quickly build momentum, consider identifying an “anchor” agency. A high profile partner can help you establish credibility and can facilitate interactions with different departments across your government. Having an anchor agency legitimizes the BDT and helps reduce any apprehension among other agencies. The initial projects with the anchor agency will help others understand both what it means to work with the BDT and what kinds of outcomes to expect.

Establish your criteria for selecting projects

Once you get people bought-in and excited about innovating with behavioral science, the possible problems to tackle can seem limitless. Before selecting projects, set up clear criteria for prioritizing which problems need attention the most and which ones are best suited to behavioral solutions. While it is natural for the exact criteria to vary from place to place, in the playbook we share the criteria the New York and Chicago BDTs use to prioritize and determine the viability of potential undertakings that other teams can use as a starting place.

Build buy-in with a mix of project types

If you run only RCTs, which require implementation and data collection, it may be challenging to generate the buy-in and enthusiasm a BDT needs to thrive in its early days. That’s why incorporating some shorter engagements, including projects that are design-only, or pre-post evaluations can help sustain momentum by quickly generating evidence—and demonstrate that your BDT gets results.

Keep learning and growing

Applying behavioral design within government programs is still relatively novel. This open-source playbook provides guidance for starting a BDT, but constant learning and iterating should be expected! As BDTs mature and evolve, they must also become more ambitious in their scope, particularly when the low-hanging-fruit or other more obvious problems that can be helpful for building buy-in and establishing proof-of-concept have been addressed. The long-term goal of any successful BDT is to tackle the most challenging and impactful problems in government programs and policies head-on and use the solutions to help the people who need it most.

Having impacted hundreds of thousands of lives through an almost 50 combined projects to date, the New York and Chicago BDTs have demonstrated that embedding behavioral science at the city level works, for both the agencies themselves and the people they serve. Compiling into a playbook the insights from our years of working directly with cities across the United States can help others launch and sustain their own effective Behavioral Design Teams. We hope other cities will consider leveraging this proven process, and that the playbook creates a path to spread the impact of behavioral science for social good even wider.

Interested in learning more about building your own BDT? Get in touch at gov@ideas42.org.