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Public Officials, They’re Just Like Us: What’s Preventing Responses to Locally Reported Issues?

A few months ago, I was walking down a street in the city where I live and stumbled upon a fallen tree blocking the sidewalk. I had three options: A) patiently wait until the coast was clear of fast-moving cars and walk on the street around it; B) put those arm workouts I’ve been doing to the test and try to move it; or C) take out my phone and report the problem to the government through my city’s citizen request app.

I chose option C. Citizen request platforms—also known as 311 systems in the U.S.—allow residents to report issues ranging from burst water pipes overflowing the streets to those potholes you never seem to be able to avoid while driving. You can even use these platforms to report if a public official asks you for a bribe! These technologies are at the cutting edge of governments’ interaction with residents, created in an effort to increase trust, satisfaction, and participation as they deliver a variety of services (financed by citizen tax dollars) in an accountable way. Citizen request platforms are used worldwide because they make it simple for residents to report an issue or request information, but more importantly, because these platforms provide regular residents—like me—with the ability to communicate directly with the local government. The process of reporting the fallen tree took less than two minutes. I had to include a brief description of the issue, a photo, and my location. Soon after that, I received a confirmation text message that the request had been received. Voilà!

But what happens next—when the request is received—is not always so simple. Despite 311’s enormous potential to improve government service provision, there is mixed evidence on whether the existence of these systems actually means safer roads, cleaner parks, or fewer downed power lines—not to mention more accountable public servants. The problem: residents across the globe are submitting thousands of requests daily, and yet governments are not able to keep up.

If user engagement cannot explain non-response, neither can a lack of resources, policy alignment, or political will. In fact, these platforms tend to be well-funded and installed in high-capacity government offices where there is an incentive for officials to deliver on their promises—considering they are working in a high-profile, politically-valuable, public-facing system. So, why does responsiveness remain a challenge in many cases around the world?

With support from the Hewlett Foundation, my team and I recently conducted a combination of site visits and interviews with more than 30 government officials, civil society organizations, and platform providers globally—in cities as varied as São Paulo, Delhi, and Cape Town—to find out. Although the process of resolving requests varies across cities, we found a series of seven steps that are common to nearly all government-owned platforms:

Behavioral science suggests that, like everyone, government officials often act the way they do because of how the environment around them—from office routine to features of the software they use—influences their ability to stay focused, make difficult choices, and translate intentions into actions. This chain of decisions and actions showcases the complexity of resolving requests, and a challenge in any one of the steps can significantly delay—in some cases indefinitely—the resolution of a request.

Below are a few examples of psychological phenomena that may be preventing government officials from responding to citizen requests effectively, as well as potential solutions to overcome them:

Highlighting teammates’ productive habits. Increasing communication between frontend teams (who input residents’ requests in step #1) and backend teams (who execute the action in step #5) could help ensure that both teams have the information needed to answer residents’ questions about a particular request at any point in time—leading to a more efficient resolution process and transparent communication with residents. Department officials may not be adding detailed enough notes about progress on the platform interface because they don’t see their coworkers doing it. People tend to behave as they perceive peers around them behaving. However, entering details into the platform is not a very visible act, so other officials may in fact be doing so. Creating a scorecard by department showing the number of high-quality notes entered in the system every month compared to other departments may lead to better update reporting and, therefore, higher quality in service provision.

Getting request status updates off the back burner. Officials may not be updating the status of requests correctly (step #6) or prioritizing them over other duties, and may be pushing this task until “later.” We know that people tend to report a greater willingness to undertake costly tasks in the future than their actual willingness to do these tasks when the moment arrives. Creating implementation plans, making externally visible commitments, or setting reminders or deadlines could help overcome this tendency.

Removing hassles. Citizen request platforms may be hard to use—unclear navigation menu, numerous request status options to choose from, lack of visuals and colors—and therefore could be creating an additional hassle when officials try to forward a request to the right department (step #2). Because people are significantly less likely to follow through on actions when they encounter seemingly minor obstacles, this design may lead officials to mark requests as “resolved” (step #6) when work still remains to be completed to avoid having to figure out an ambiguous forwarding process. Redesigning the platform to make the process simpler, more user friendly, and less time consuming could encourage officials to forward requests and/or update statuses more efficiently and effectively.

How can these insights improve government responsiveness? They show it is important to look closely at bureaucratic processes in order to understand their complexity and pinpoint where things can go wrong. Too often we assume, particularly when it comes to government processes, that if something is broken—in this case, the process of resolving residents’ requests—it will likely stay that way. But that doesn’t have to be the case, which is why we are embarking in an effort to improve service provision through applied behavioral science. We’ll partner with governments in developing countries to design behavioral interventions, test their impact, and scale them up to help government officials improve service provision—and respond to residents who alert them to problems.

Seven months since I submitted my request to remove the fallen tree, I still have not received an update informing me whether it was resolved. I’m quite confident that the tree was removed within weeks—if not days—of my request submission. But do I know for sure who did it or whether the action resulted from my request? I don’t. Improving government responsiveness is not just about getting more issues resolved, but also making residents feel heard. Achieving this can be the first step to increase civic trust, satisfaction, and participation.

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Making Behavioral Innovation Accessible to Every City with the CityNudge Accelerator

It’s not exactly breaking news that water shortages and electricity cuts are emerging as critical challenges for cities around the world. Stories of strain on water supplies and power grids abound as populations grow and extreme weather events occur with increasing regularity. At the same time, as well-meaning policymakers strive to take action, many city governments are experiencing a decline in tax payment compliance, hindering their ability to collect the revenue needed to improve service delivery for their constituents and address pressing environmental sustainability problems in the face of climate and population changes.

There are many reasons people may not take the steps they know they should to conserve precious natural resources, pay their taxes on time (or at all), or use helpful services available to help them to follow through on these important issues – even when they’re motivated to. Sometimes, the required process for taking action is onerous or simply not top-of-mind at the right moments. Additionally, people may be aware that water and power are critical and limited resources, but often they don’t know how much water they actually use in their daily lives, how this compares to their neighbors, or which activities consume significant quantities of these resources, making it incredibly difficult to effectively take action on using less.

Thanks to behavioral design, proven solutions for mitigating these challenges exist. Over the years, many of these solutions have been adopted in several municipalities and gained wide recognition globally. By delivering reliable resource savings and revenue increases, they quickly pay for themselves. But governments in the developing world have been hesitant to adopt them due to the upfront costs of innovation and taking on the risk associated with failure.

Fortunately, behavioral innovation can be financially risk-free for cities with a new initiative we’re developing at ideas42, the CityNudge Accelerator. This initiative can offer cities and other local governments a way to experiment with the latest innovations in resource conservation and revenue generation with no downside financial risk.

We’ve achieved success and created real social impact by helping dozens of governments innovate over the last several years. Throughout that time, we’ve been refining our approach with an evolving model that has included conducting in-depth diagnosis into the problems facing service providers, designing new solutions, and using rigorous experiments to evaluate their effectiveness. We’ve even invested in building governments’ capacity to do this work on their own, occasionally going as far as embedding our own staff directly into government agencies to innovate from within.

Now, with the CityNudge Accelerator, we have our sights set even higher. To increase our impact, we’re enhancing how we scale up the problem-solving innovations we discover. We’re building the capabilities to help governments replicate effective innovations at scale, positively impacting critical service delivery and the lives of the people they serve.

Our CityNudge Accelerator team is now actively seeking partnerships with cities and other local governments interested in leveraging proven innovative, behaviorally-informed solutions to pressing problems in revenue collection and environmental sustainability.

If you’re a member of a city government or agency, and committed to bringing your city to the forefront of innovation, join a free webinar to learn more about how our CityNudge Accelerator can help you adapt and scale effective solutions at no cost to your city. Attending a webinar is the first step towards a financially risk-free opportunity to partner with ideas42’s experts.

How will it work? Partner cities will work closely with ideas42 team members and other experts to adapt proven “nudges” to help your government mitigate pressing environmental and fiscal challenges. ideas42 will also assist cities in implementing nudges, and wherever possible, share insights from the partnership with the global community. Crucially, cities will incur no costs if interventions do not achieve the desired impact, as verified by an independent third party. If they do achieve impact, then only a portion of gains, in the form of cost saving or revenue enhancement, would be shared with ideas42.

Behavioral innovation has proven time and again to not only measurably improve outcomes, but often be cheaper than traditional approaches. The CityNudge Accelerator, in partnership with cities interested in cutting-edge innovation, will demonstrate how low-cost, incremental changes can produce a meaningful impact, and how this can be done sustainably and without financial risk for governments.

Helping more city and local governments discover the power of behavioral design is an important step in scaling innovative, effective solutions to more people. It also brings us one step closer to achieving our ultimate goal of making the use of behavioral science a ubiquitous tool for making the world healthier, wealthier, more just, and more sustainable for all.

Click here for more information about our upcoming webinars and partnering with the CityNudge Accelerator, and stay tuned to the ideas42 blog for the latest updates as we continue to develop this new initiative.

Skipping The Bag: A Look at Chicago’s Bag Tax

This summer, a wave of restrictions on plastic drinking straws swept through legislatures and councils in California, New York City, and Seattle; even private companies like Starbucks are taking a stand on plastic straws—the beverage giant is planning to phase them out of their stores entirely by 2020. While there’s been some controversy surrounding these policies, the underlying idea behind such measures—that we use far too many disposable, non-recyclable goods and should try to cut back wherever we can—isn’t new. Since 2007, cities and states across the US, joined most recently by Anchorage, Alaska last week, have either taxed or banned the use of single-use shopping bags altogether. And while we don’t yet know whether plastic straw bans will end up achieving their desired impact, we do have robust research on how bag taxes change whether people decide to use disposable bags.

The latest research is the result of our collaboration with researchers from the University of Chicago and New York University, a team that’s been working with the city of Chicago to measure the effects of its 7-cent tax on disposable paper and plastic bags. The tax was passed in November of 2016, and the City wanted to know whether it would actually encourage people cut down on disposable bag use. Would they use fewer disposable bags? Would they use more reusable bags? Would they just stop using bags altogether or bring their own?

To do this, we looked at what kinds of bags (if any) people used at large chain grocery stores in Chicago before and after the tax went into effect. We then compared that usage over time to stores just outside Chicago city limits, which weren’t directly impacted by the tax. When we crunched the numbers a few months after the tax went into effect, we found that average disposable bag use dropped an impressive 42%—quite promising, and even poetic, given our name! We were then curious about whether those effects would hold up over time—and for the most part, they did. We just wrapped up a longer-term follow-up analysis, and we’re finding pretty much the same effects a year out. Because of the tax, fewer people in Chicago are using disposable bags, and more people are either using reusable bags or going ‘bagless’—though the changes in the number of bags used per person per shopping trip have diminished a bit over time.

“But wait!” you might be thinking right now. “I thought this whole ‘behavioral science’ approach was all about nudges! Taxes aren’t nudges, they’re incentives!” And you might be right—but only slightly. Here’s why: even if we concede that a tax is not, in fact, a nudge, but a tool from the more traditional economic approach, behavioral science is about so much more than nudges. At ideas42, a core part of our methodology to solve social problems involves unearthing the underlying reasons why people act the way they do, and designing solutions that address those underlying reasons. Those solutions could be traditional nudges, but they can (and often do) also take the form of other innovations, such as developing a behaviorally informed curriculum for reducing recidivism among youth, a family literacy program, or a financial health check. In the realm of policy, applying behavioral insights (even if they’re not nudges) has a high potential for impact. Since a policy that tries to change people’s behavior will be most effective when it accounts for how people actually behave in the real world, this just makes sense. For example, a potential, traditional strategy to help discourage disposable bag use could be offering small incentives in the form of credits for every reusable bag that customers use at checkout. However, we know from research on loss aversion that these types of policies probably won’t be as effective as charging fees for using disposable bags. Because of our tendency to overvalue losses over equivalent gains, people are happier to avoid paying 7 cents for a disposable bag than they are to receive 7 cents for using a reusable bag. In the case of Chicago’s bag tax, there are three mechanisms that we think make it even more effective than traditional economics might predict: as a direct tax, it’s noticeable (and got lots of press), it taps into our natural loss aversion and dislike of paying for things that used to be free, and it sets the stage for long-term behavior change by creating new bag use habits.

While we didn’t try to measure the individual effects of each of those mechanisms, we do know that overall, the tax managed to change people’s behavior in the right direction. What this shows is that when human behavior is taken into account in policy development, it’s possible to have measurable impact on that behavior. Those insights can then serve as the foundation for building on and incorporating into future work (and could be useful for budding plastic straw bans). Of course, this is just one of many strategies that will be needed in the larger effort to design policies and habits that are more environmentally friendly. As we continue to experiment with different ways to protect our planet’s environment, we need to keep pushing for rigorous evaluations of the effects of these interventions so that we know definitively what works and what doesn’t. This is an early step, and there’s still much more work to be done—while we’re getting closer, we don’t have it in the bag just yet.

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