Government underperformance holds back development in much of the world. Over half of those living in poverty across the world now reside in middle-income countries, highlighting the need for governments to equitably redistribute resources. That means listening to what constituents need, responding fairly to their complaints and executing policy with minimal waste. But there is growing evidence that despite the concentration of public attention and adequate material resources on governance challenges, officials still struggle to fulfill their mandates, missing out on the potential to catalyze development.
It’s easy to blame governments for not investing enough in the salaries, systems, or skills of their employees. But an emerging literature demonstrates that seemingly simple features of the context in which government officials make decisions and take actions may play an equally (or sometimes, more) important role in hindering policy execution.
In the end, we are governed by humans. Our 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 on others. In government, this can lead to broken promises, missed deadlines, or the neglect of some duties as officials spend their time on things that are “urgent” rather than what is “important.” For example, officials who work hard to close out requests for repairs or maintenance may neglect to notify a resident that the work has actually been done, despite how critical this communication is for reinforcing the social contract and building trust.
We believe that governmental tools, workplaces and systems are not designed to maximize the efforts of hard-working public servants, and this is standing in the way of good governance. Their jobs are hard enough without having to grapple with challenges such as labyrinthine software interfaces or ambiguous legal texts that lead to inertia on the part of local officials.
Fortunately, behavioral science can help us make changes to such often overlooked aspects of the context in which government workers and public officials operate – from office routines to software design – that can drastically improve government performance.
By leveraging a deep understanding of human behavior, our governance team supports the hard work of public servants in low- and middle-income countries through light-touch, low-cost interventions with the power to optimize limited public resources, and more importantly, improve the lives of the people governments serve. We do this work through partners and bi-laterals, multilaterals, NGOs or private sector suppliers who are invested in creating purposeful, stable relationships with governments to change government behavior.
Our work to date has focused on issues critical to good governance such as:
- Responsiveness to constituent-submitted complaints and requests
- Compliance with auditing recommendations
- Collaboration across departments and breaking down of silos
- Procurement mechanisms infused with proper incentives to deliver results
- Effective use of evidence in municipal policy making to address constituent needs
- Making effective use of newly decentralized powers at the local level
The overall aim of our governance work is that by 2030, all reform programs in LMI countries will include explicit behavioral science components, resulting in a more efficient use of resources and an improvement in the lives of tens of millions of people around the world. Our focus is on generating tangible impact in three ways.
- Better government responsiveness in more regions around the world: We are designing behavioral interventions, building on previous research, to improve direct government response to complaints and requests submitted by residents in urban areas in Brazil, India, and South Africa. This work is supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Luminate.
- Replicating and scaling what works with the CityNudge Accelerator: We are scaling successful behavioral designs to transform how cities adopt proven tools to improve basic service delivery. To reduce barriers to the adoption of behavioral insights, cities will incur no costs if the interventions do not achieve the desired impact. An initial pilot under this model improved property tax repayment rates in Pristina, Kosovo. This work was made possible by funding from the Global Innovation Fund (GIF).
- Developing comprehensive insights in new areas of governance: We’re working on generating and applying new work aimed at behavior change in the fields of anti-corruption, open data & transparency, participatory processes, and many more.
Interested in learning more about our work applying behavioral science to improve governance around the world? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.