July 22, New York: ideas42, the leading applied behavioral science nonprofit, today announced a commitment to improving government performance in low- and middle-income countries around the world through the creation of a governance focus area, anchored by $1M in funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Luminate. This funding enables a portfolio of work aimed at tackling the challenge of direct government response to complaints and requests submitted by residents in urban areas across the globe. It builds on initial research, also supported by the Hewlett Foundation that culminated in the report Concrete Action: Paving Potholes with Behavioral Science.
Government performance shortcomings have become the most critical constraint to development in much of the world. This is especially true in middle-income countries, where, for the first time in modern history, over half of those living in poverty across the world reside. Responding to constituents’ needs is at the core of government’s mandate in democracies, something that has become even more urgent in light of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The recent proliferation of digital complaint- and request-submission platforms in governments around the world holds significant promise for improving a government’s ability to fulfill their duty and strengthen the social contract underpinning it, particularly at a time when physical distancing for public health and safety is paramount. However, there is growing evidence that despite attempts to increase resident engagement, progress isn’t being made, and government officials are struggling to increase responsiveness.
Focusing on misaligned incentives, inadequate resources and information gaps to explain why public servants aren’t responsive enough is the common approach, even when governments have demonstrated a clear commitment to addressing the needs of their constituents. However, an emerging literature demonstrates that the context in which government officials make decisions and take actions may play an equally (or sometimes, more) important role. 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 suggests that the field of applied behavioral science, which in recent decades cut its teeth on issues of social impact in other arenas – helping more students access postsecondary education, for example, or expanding financial inclusion– could play an important role in helping identify, understand, and address the barriers to greater government responsiveness to citizen complaints and requests, and the fuller utilization and greater effectiveness of platforms intended to facilitate this.
“Building on years of working to improve public services around the world, this portfolio will formalize our efforts to help governments in low- and middle-income countries serve their constituents more effectively using proven behavioral insights,” said Josh Martin, Managing Director at ideas42 and one of the leaders of the portfolio. “Government officials play a huge yet underappreciated role in development. Most of them are dedicated public servants who come to work every day doing their best to use the resources they have to make a difference, but instead of recognition, they receive blame for the shortcomings of the system around them. We see our work on government responsiveness as the first of many initiatives focused on improving the quality of public service provision by removing the barriers that prevent public officials from doing their jobs to the very best of their ability.”
ideas42 has a strong track record of success partnering with governments at the national, state, and local level on dozens of initiatives. However, this new governance portfolio will be ideas42’s first foray into direct government work focused on changing the behavior of public servants as it relates to their core duties, rather than changing individual constituents’ behavior or uptake of programs and services.
The new two-year $1M engagement supported by the Hewlett Foundation and Luminate will focus on designing solutions for urban areas in Brazil, South Africa, and India, with plans to expand to more countries in the future. The newest partnerships include:
- Working to design interventions aimed at improving the quality of intake for resident requests in Cape Town, South Africa
- Also in South Africa, collaborating with OpenUp to identify behavioral barriers preventing the use of data and application of existing evidence in local policy-making.
- Identifying behavioral interventions aimed at improving governance responsiveness, including increasing the amount and quality of updates sent to residents about their request status, in several municipalities in Brazil in partnership with Colab.
- Working with the eGovernments Foundation and the Government of Andhra Pradesh in India to identify and address behavioral barriers hindering the effective and timely response to resident complaints
The recent white paper from the Governance team guiding the first projects in this new portfolio, Concrete Action: Paving Potholes with Behavioral Science, lays the foundation for identifying meaningful dimensions of what comprises ‘responsiveness’ as well as pathways to help governments respond more efficiently – and equitably — to routine but important requests received from residents.
ideas42 is a non-profit that uses insights from human behavior—why people do what they do—to help improve lives, build better systems, and drive social change. For more than a decade, we’ve been at the forefront of applying behavioral science in the real world. Our efforts have so far extended to 45 countries as we’ve partnered with governments, foundations, NGOs, private enterprises, and a wide array of public institutions–in short, anyone who wants to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives. For more, visit ideas42.org
Mitra Salasel email@example.com