Government Performance

It’s no secret that government officials and public servants are busy. They manage competing policy demands from above and below while putting out constant fires. This is particularly true in the developing world, where public resources are often limited due to misuse or waste. But how does this environment that officials, public servants, and service providers operate in affect citizens?

As humans, the natural tendency when faced with competing priorities and limited time and resources (a condition known as scarcity) is to “tunnel,” or focus on the most urgent responsibilities and forget or procrastinate others. In the context of governance, this tendency all humans share leads to missed deadlines or the neglect of important, but less urgent, duties. For example, service providers operating under conditions of scarcity may neglect to notify a citizen, who submitted a pothole complaint, that it has been filled. This interaction is critical for reinforcing the social contract and building trust, but can be seen as less urgent, thus it is more easily overlooked.

One third of aggregate government spending worldwide is dedicated to providing essential services and billions of dollars are spent annually on “systemic” reform programs to improve government’s ability to provide these services, such as implementing new public financial management systems. Improving the way government services are provided can not only result in more efficient use of resources, it can also improve citizens’ lives around the world.

Fortunately, behavioral science research tells us that modifying seemingly minor aspects of the environment – from office routines to software or platform features – can drastically improve performance. At ideas42, we’re working to help government officials perform their day-to-day responsibilities by identifying behavioral barriers to action and designing light-touch, context-specific tools or changes to their environment to address the barriers they face.

Our current work includes:

  • Citizen requests: With support from the Hewlett Foundation, we conducted a preliminary investigation on how behavioral science can improve government responsiveness to citizen requests and complaints submitted through various technology platforms.
  • CityNudge Accelerator: With support from the Global Innovation Fund, we’re scaling successful behavioral designs and transforming how governments can adopt proven innovation tools to improve basic service delivery. To reduce barriers cities face when considering leveraging behavioral insights, cities will incur no costs of implementation if the interventions don’t achieve the desired impact.
  • Comprehensive insights: Stay tuned for a new ideas42 publication summarizing our approach to bureaucratic behavior change in the fields of anti-corruption, open data & transparency, and many more.

Interested in learning more about our work applying behavioral science within international governments? Reach out to us at or tweet at @ideas42 to join the conversation.

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