We’ve joined the NYC Mayor’s Office of Operations to create the New York City 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 at low cost.
Connecting with the BDT:
The BDT is a free resource for any NYC agency interested in applying behavioral insights to new and existing processes and programs. Do you work for an NYC agency interested in using behavioral science? Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more.
Need quick behavioral design advice? Sign up here for a Zoom office hour with BDT members. So far, we have worked with agencies on diverse topics ranging from redesigning flyers for more effective client communication to redesigning programs to improve the client experience.
Check out an overview of some of our recent work with the City:
Reducing Misfiled Service Requests on NYC311’s Mobile Platform
The 311 Mobile App team was receiving a large number of misfiled service requests in an early version of the application, and wanted improved, more frequent feedback on the app’s functionality from users. The BDT conducted qualitative research with a small sample of users and provided behaviorally informed recommendations to redesign the smartphone app’s menu and reframe its feedback function
- Pre/Post evaluation showed that changing menu choices and reframing language around feedback decreased misfiled service requests from 59% to 9%.
NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS)
Improving Positive Reinforcement Systems in Youth Detention Centers
The complexity and contradictions within ASPIRE, the behavior management system used at ACS’s secure youth detention centers in NYC, had caused an uneven application of rules by staff and a lack of buy-in among youth residing in centers. To encourage youth’s investment in the system, reduce unsafe behaviors, and increase prosocial behavior, the BDT collaborated with ACS to redesign the points and levels structure and revise incentives. Design recommendations were based upon the input of youth and staff in centers and addressed behavioral barriers of limited attention, scarcity, and present bias.
- The redesigned behavior management system (“STRIVE”) is currently being implemented in every secure youth detention center in NYCand staff are being trained in its principles.
NYC Department of Education (DOE)
Increasing Sign-Up for Gifted & Talented Testing in Low-Income School Districts
Students in low-income districts are less likely than their peers in higher income districts to take the Gifted & Talented (G&T) admissions test. The BDT redesigned emails and postcards to encourage preschool parents to sign their students up for the test. The redesigned email used a congratulatory tone to prime the positive identity of a proud parent and used icons and succinct language to highlight key information. The postcard reframed the G&T program as one in which all types of students participate and included a sample test question to reduce ambiguity around testing level.
- An RCT showed that the redesigned email increased testing requests by 5.0% among all districts and 0% among low-income school districts.
NYC Department of Finance (DOF)
Reducing the Number of Parking Tickets Entering Judgment
About a fifth of parking tickets issued to drivers in NYC enter into judgment, among which over three-quarters could have been addressed sooner. When unaddressed tickets enter into judgment, they incur additional fees for the driver. To reduce the number of unpaid tickets entering judgment, the BDT redesigned the envelope containing penalty notices sent to drivers with unpaid tickets. The envelope tested the use of a non-blaming tone to reduce the tendency to ostrich from unpleasant news, as well as attempted to reduce present bias by highlighting the potential losses as a consequence of delaying payment of the ticket.
- An RCT showed that expensive tickets belonging to drivers that received the behaviorally designed envelope 90-days after receiving their ticket were 7 percentage points less likely to enter into judgment.
- The DOF scaled the behaviorally designed envelope to all drivers whose unpaid tickets prompt the 90-day notice in August 2018.
Reducing Vehicle Booting Among NYC Drivers
When NYC drivers approach $350 in unpaid parking fines and interest, their vehicles become at-risk for booting. To release a boot, drivers often pay over $700 – an unanticipated financial cost that can be particularly disruptive for those living in low-to-moderate income households. To motivate drivers to take action and lower the risk of booting, the BDT redesigned a warning email delivered to drivers approaching the $350 threshold. The redesign makes salient the consequences of inaction to reduce procrastination, cuts hassles to make payment easier, and reframes the email in a personalized, non-blaming tone to reduce aversion associated with the ticket.
- An RCT showed the redesigned email reduced boot eligibility by 10.4%.
- The DOF scaled the redesigned email to all drivers approaching the booting threshold.
NYC Fire Department (FDNY)
Reducing Micro-hassles Improves Firefighter Diversity: Removing an Exam Filing Fee
Historically, women and underrepresented group members have become firefighters at lower rates than white men. In the 2017 firefighter recruiting season, the FDNY set explicit targets for increased firefighter diversity and engaged the BDT to design and test ways to increase the number of female and underrepresented candidates entering the process. The BDT targeted the first step in the recruitment process: filing to take the civil service exam. Waiving a small fee associated with filing overcomes a bureaucratic hassle, which may disproportionately discourage underrepresented group members and women from filing for the exam.
- An RCT showed that fee waivers increased registration among female candidates by 83% and registration among black candidates by 84%.
- Registration among male and white candidates also increased, but only by 22% and 38%, respectively.
Converting Exam Filers to Test Takers: Behavioral Reminders for Potential Firefighter Candidates
Many individuals who file to take the DCAS Firefighter Exam often fail to appear for their scheduled exam. FDNY engaged with the NYC BDT to test the effectiveness of a reminder campaign, using a randomly-assigned email, text, email and text, and automated voice response (AVR) phone campaign. Based on previous research on plan-making, the BDT redesigned these communications to include a planning prompt to encourage candidates to make a plan for how they would arrive on time to their scheduled exam.
- An RCT showed that candidates who received both a text message and an email were 6% more likely to appear for the exam than those who received the other forms of outreach.
Increasing the number of firefighter candidates who claim residency points
Many firefighter candidates with long-term residency in NYC who take the written firefighter exam fail to claim the additional points offered to long-term NYC residents – this difference of a few extra points often bumps candidates into eligibility. To encourage candidates to claim residency points by email, the BDT designed an email and text message campaign, using social norms and loss aversion to grab candidates’ attention, as well as reduced the number of steps required to claim points by drafting a pre-populated email for candidates to easily complete and send to the Department of Citywide Administrative Services (DCAS). Half of the candidates received the social norms messaging while the other half received the loss aversion messaging.
- A randomized controlled trial showed no statistically significant difference in claimed points for those who received social norms messaging compared to loss aversion messaging.
- A small sample of underrepresented candidates who received a more intensive campaign were 7.4 percentage points more likely to claim residency points, which is statistically significant. This suggests that a more intensive behavioral campaign targeting encourages candidates who are less likely to claim their points.
NYC Department of Housing Preservation & Development (HPD)
Improving “Good Fit” Matches in NYC Housing Lotteries
The NYC affordable housing lottery online application system (“Housing Connect”), which currently hosts close to 2 million users, faced a “goodness of fit” problem, or a mismatch between which lotteries applicants apply to and whether their household is ultimately eligible for and interested in those housing developments. To support clients to accurately report annualized income and select good fit lotteries, the BDT provided a set of behavioral design recommendations that considered key barriers clients face when visiting Housing Connect. Recommendations sought to improve the choice architecture of the portal, making strong matches more salient and reducing the hassles, ambiguity aversion, and present bias that clients encounter with the current design.
- Recommendations are being used to inform the redesign the Housing Connect portal, which will include a behaviorally informed income questionnaire and housing suggestions tailored for applicants.
NYC Human Resources Administration (HRA)
Increasing Form Submission Rates Among SNAP Recertification Clients
SNAP churn (losing benefits, then returning within 90 days) hurts recipients and burdens HRA. To improve SNAP recertification rates, the BDT designed a reminder notice spurring clients to take the first required recertification step: submitting a recertification form. The notice leveraged loss aversion by reframing recertification as a potential loss of benefits and used graphics and numbering to make action steps clear and seem more manageable.
- An RCT showed the reminder reduced failure to submit recertification forms by 5.5%.
- The reminder notice was scaled to all clients who do not submit their formsby the reminder mailing date.
Reducing SNAP Churn through Periodic Report Reminders
SNAP churn results from failure to recertify annually, but is also driven by failure to complete the six-month periodic report. The BDT designed two behaviorally informed emails to prompt online periodic report submission. Both emails leveraged loss aversion, outlined action steps and time expectations, and made deadlines salient. One email also used enhanced active choice.
- Enhanced active choice emails increased engagement rates by 30.1%.
NYC Office of Labor Relations (OLR) + WorkWell NYC
Increasing Flu Vaccines among City Employees
Within the New York City workforce, over 400,000 employees and their family members were unvaccinated from the flu in the 2015-16 flu season, risking their own health and potentially spreading the flu to others. To increase uptake of flu vaccines and maintain a healthy workforce during the 2016-17 flu season, the BDT partnered with WorkWell NYC to design a set of three behaviorally informed emails to send to all NYC employees encouraging them to protect themselves and others from the flu by getting a vaccine. One version of the redesigned email used the strategy of “enhanced active choice,” whereby employees were prompted to make a choice that had a clear right answer.
- Behavioral emails doubled click through and registration rates. The enhanced active choice version of the email increased vaccine uptake at worksite locations by 5%.
- The most successful arm was scaled in 2017-18 and a 10% increase in vaccine uptake was observed year over year.
NYC Mayor’s Office of Recovery & Resiliency (ORR)
Increasing Survey Completion for Flood Insurance Affordability Study
Only 11% of NYC households in flood-prone areas had responded to an online survey, which provided valuable information to inform policies and programs that address expanding flood maps due to climate change. In order to boost engagement with targeted homeowners, the BDT worked with ORR to design and test–via a randomized controlled trial—a behaviorally informed “last chance letter” that simplified language, depicted the concrete benefits of participation, and imposed a soft deadline.
- An RCT showed a 6 percentage point increase in survey completion, which means households were 15.5x more likely to complete the survey if they received our “last chance letter.”
- The “last chance letter” was scaled to every household eligible for the affordability study.