- Local governments worldwide are responsible for handling myriad citizen requests, but several behavioral barriers can delay response.
- We collaborated with Colab, a Brazilian civic technology provider, to improve the timeliness with which public servants resolve service requests.
- Our positive results demonstrate that simple, behaviorally-informed design tweaks to civic technology platforms can significantly improve responsiveness to requests.
Local governments worldwide are responsible for handling a variety of citizen requests, such as providing basic information on municipal services, reporting graffiti, fixing broken streetlights and potholes, reporting building violations, conducting sewer inspections, and more. To manage this deluge of requests, municipalities often employ request management platforms and software.
To improve the timeliness of government response in municipalities across Brazil, we collaborated with Colab, a Brazilian civic technology provider. Our goal was twofold: to improve the timeliness with which public servants resolve service requests , and reduce the time it takes to re-route incorrectly assigned requests to the appropriate staff.
Among Brazilian municipalities using the Colab platform to manage requests, we found that forwarding misassigned requests to an appropriate colleague took almost three days, and in approximately 10% of the cases, more than one week. Such delays directly affect the overall timeliness of request resolution, and may negatively impact constituents’ satisfaction with municipal service delivery.
Formative research suggests that behavioral barriers—including the poor salience of incorrectly assigned requests, the way staff prioritize such tasks, and hassles in using the resolution platform—might cause delays in the resolution of requests.
We also identified several behavioral barriers that hinder the forwarding of service requests, such as requests being overlooked, low priority of forwarding, and unnecessary complexity in the process. To overcome these challenges, we devised several platform tweaks. These tweaks aimed to increase the visibility and ease of identifying service requests, simplify the forwarding process, and provide public servants with personalized feedback on their performance, including their timeliness in forwarding requests. We then conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) o test the impact of platform improvements on request forwarding timeliness.
An RCT in three municipalities found that the behavioral designs significantly affected public servants behavior: the likelihood of such requests being forwarded on the same day as received increased by 29% and the likelihood of requests remaining unattended for more than 30 days fell by 60%.
The treatment group—which received the improved platform—outperformed the control group in terms of the proportion of requests forwarded on the same day (68% vs. 61%). The intervention also reduced the average number of business days it took for requests to be forwarded, with the treatment group averaging 2.4 business days and the control group averaging 6.1 business days. Qualitative interviews showed that users appreciated the new features and provided insights for further refinement. While these outcomes were not formally tested, it is possible that the intervention had a positive impact on overall timeliness and accuracy of request resolution.
Our work in Brazil demonstrates that simple, behaviorally-informed design tweaks to civic technology platforms can significantly improve responsiveness to requests. These findings suggest that building or rebuilding civic tech platforms through a behavioral science lens has enormous potential. Not only can behavioral science insights improve the quality of services offered to residents, but they may also save governments resources and ultimately strengthen the social contract between society and the government.