By Jon Hayes, Natalie Dabney & Rachel Rosenberg

It is a critical, yet seemingly simple function of city government: connect residents to the programs designed to serve them. Cities invest countless resources to inform the public of valuable programs and encourage residents to use them. Yet mysteriously, those who would most benefit from these programs often neglect to take advantage of them. For example, national statistics show that eligible students nationwide leave more than $2.7 billion in free financial aid on the table every year.

In many cases, the problem may not be the programs themselves, but the way in which information about them is shared. One of the biggest misconceptions about communication is that it has even taken place. You can imagine endless financial aid reminders to students lost in piles of unopened mail. The fact is, simply providing information is not enough.

Particularly in large cities where residents are inundated with information, people can find it difficult to wade through the noise of their everyday environments. When faced with such an abundance of information, people often reflexively dismiss most of it. This means that residents may never learn about valuable programs and services, let alone take advantage of them.

The good news is that insights from behavioral science can provide a very useful framework for improving how cities communicate with and engage their residents. Our Behavioral Design Teams (BDTs) partner with large U.S. cities as part of our Gov42 initiative to apply such a behavioral framework. Embedded in city agencies, BDTs often use simple and inexpensive design tweaks that can make a difference in the lives of millions of people.

In the summer of 2016, the NYC BDT (our Behavioral Design Team in New York City) redesigned some of the city’s outreach to collect online survey responses on the affordability of flood insurance coverage for thousands of households in high flood-risk neighborhoods. Despite large monetary incentives for taking the survey ­– a $50 gift card and an offer for free elevation surveying valued at $1,000 – engagement was extremely low.

The NYC BDT found a simple solution. We redesigned a reminder letter that increased the salience of these incentives and more clearly outlined action steps for completing the city’s survey. Social norms messaging on the envelope grabbed recipients’ attention (e.g. “Join hundreds of property owners in your area lowering their flood insurance costs”), and a soft deadline (“You must respond within 1 week!”) conveyed urgency to further increase salience of the letter.

The results were striking. Households that received our behaviorally-designed reminder letter were 15.5 times more likely to provide the City with flood-risk information.

Improving communication is only the beginning. Leveraging social norms and highlighting actionable steps are just two strategies from behavioral science that have the potential not only to improve outreach, but also achieve goals like increased retention, compliance, and transparency. A range of ongoing BDT projects are demonstrating how behavioral science can be applied to address a variety of challenges and pave the way for more effective and responsive cities.

Supported by The Laura and John Arnold Foundation, we continue to design interventions that help New Yorkers. Work for a NYC agency? Reach out to us at to learn how we can use behavioral science to address some of your trickiest problems. If you’re a U.S. city or state agency outside of NYC interested in working with us, contact us at