New York Behavioral Design Team

Posted in Projects

Bringing behavioral insights to the largest city in the United States

We’ve joined the NYC Mayor’s Office of Operations to create the New York Behavioral Design Team (BDT). Part of our Gov42 portfolio of government partnerships, the BDT builds on proven interventions at the federal, state, and city levels to find new evidence-based cost-effective solutions to persistent social problems.

NYC is the home of 8.5 million people and more than 50 city agencies that provide essential public services – from traffic safety and tax assistance to pre-K programs and health clinics. In every context that a city agency interacts with the public, there is an opportunity to enhance outcomes and experiences at scale. Behavioral science offers insights on how to capitalize on these opportunities, often in a low-cost, low-burden way.

Check out an overview of some of our recent work with the City:

Office of Recovery and Resiliency — Increasing Participation in the City’s Flood Insurance Affordability Study

The NYC Office of Recovery and Resiliency (ORR) developed a survey to collect information about the affordability of flood insurance in high-risk areas in order to serve those residents better. Despite substantial financial incentives, the response rate was only 11%. To address this low rate, the BDT designed a “last chance” letter that used a soft deadline to convey urgency, icons and text differentiation to highlight actions and benefits, and messaging on the envelope to catch recipients’ attention and encourage them to open it. This behaviorally-informed letter increased the likelihood of survey response by 4.5 percentage points and thus enabled the city to gain valuable insights on a vulnerable population.

Fire Department — Increasing Diversity

The FDNY invested in a multi-year, multi-pronged effort to increase the diversity of its ranks. As part of this initiative, the BDT worked with FDNY to conduct a randomized controlled trial to assess whether waiving filing fees for applicants might increase the diversity of applicants taking the qualifying examination. Results showed that waiving the fees increased filing rates for FDNY’s new recruit applications by 36.7% overall, with an 84% increase among black candidates and an 83% increase among female candidates.

Office of Labor Relations — Increasing Flu Vaccine Up-take Among City Employees
To increase uptake of flu vaccines and maintain a healthy workforce during the 2016-17 flu season, the BDT worked with the Office of Labor Relations to experimentally evaluate the effects of sending a set of behaviorally-informed emails to 400,000+ city workers encouraging them to protect themselves and others from the flu. The initiative resulted in a 10% increase in the number of flu vaccines that were administered at work-site locations.

Human Resources Administration — Increasing Timely SNAP Recertification Rates
At their annual recertification, approximately half of SNAP clients fail to complete one of the required steps. Many of these clients come back within just a few months to reapply—creating a processing burden on the city, while often losing a month or more of SNAP benefits for themselves and their families. To help improve recertification rates and reduce “churn,” the BDT redesigned three notifications used to inform clients about required next steps. The notifications reduced the rate of failure to submit by 5.5%, and led to an increase in form submission during the first 45 days of the recertification period by 12.9%.

Department of Education — Increasing Up-take of Gifted & Talented Testing in Low-income Districts
Students in low-income districts are less likely than their peers in higher income districts to take the Gifted and Talented (G&T) admissions test. As a result, fewer low-income students test into and attend G&T programs. Using learnings from behavioral science, the BDT redesigned emails and postcards to encourage preschool parents to sign their students up for the test. These efforts led to an increase in test registration by 6.5% in a randomized controlled trial with over 60,000 preschool parents.

City College of New York — Increasing FAFSA Filing and Academic Persistence

A program to increase FAFSA filing rates was successful at three CUNY campuses: Borough of Manhattan Community College (38.18%), Bronx Community College (19.79%), and Hostos Community College (28.06%). Based on these impressive results, CUNY is scaling this intervention to the majority of its two-year community colleges in the City.

Another program with CUNY aimed at helping more than 5,000 freshmen overcome psychological barriers to academic success increased persistence in the following semester by 3%.

The BDT is a resource for any NYC agency interested in applying behavioral insights to new and existing processes and program interventions. If you are a NYC agency interested in working with us, please contact us at

Support for the BDT is provided in part by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s core objective is to address our nation’s most pressing and persistent challenges using evidence-based, multi-disciplinary approaches.