Peak is located in the heart of the Rocky Mountain West, so it probably doesn’t make sense for us to advocate for “going East,” but we’re also all about finding ways to encourage residents’ participation in city programs like online tax filing or license plate renewals through the use of behavioral science. And to do that well, we’ve learned that EAST is the best direction.
Peak Academy was introduced to the idea of “nudges” about two years ago through the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and incorporated the concept of “choice architecture” in our weeklong Denver Black Belt class in November 2014. Choice architecture tells us that how choices are presented in a given situation impacts how choices end up being made. For example, where cereal is located on grocery store shelves influences which brands are put in someone’s shopping cart and which are not. “Nudge” applies this concept to public policy, such as the placement of healthy food in school cafeterias.
The Behavioural Insights Team in the U.K. developed the “EAST” framework, which stands for Easy, Attractive, Social, and Timely, to help group and conceptualize various ideas from behavioral science and economics, the foundation of nudges. That team came to Denver last year as a part of Denver’s selection and participation in What Works Cities, and taught Peak Academy how to apply EAST techniques to our city government. Now we teach others how to put these game-changing but simple tools to use.
It shouldn’t be a shock that people are naturally drawn to options that require the least from them in terms of time and/or resources. The higher the friction cost (the relative difficulty associated with a given option), the less likely someone is to chose that option, and thus the easier it is, the more people will do it. Think about unsubscribing from a marketing email- you have to find the link, click on it, fill out a little bit of information, and confirm your unsubscription.
One strategy to reduce friction costs is to change the default. Often the simplest choice is one that has already been made for you, such as a double-sided default printer setting. You don’t have to think about the more environmentally-friendly option of double-sided printing if it’s the default!
Think about how we communicate with citizens in government; it’s often by mail, which costs money for postage and printing. Employees at the Denver Employee Retirement Plan (DERP) found a way to reduce those costs and increase participation by changing their default for new retirees to sending pay stubs via email instead of physical mail. This change resulted in DERP saving over $80,000 a year.
Marketers are keenly aware that drawing attention to a call to action (such as a “Buy Now” button) influences the behavior of a customer. Government can use similar tactics to encourage citizens to pay their unpaid sewer bills and sign up for a digital service. Back in December, the Denver DMV teamed up with the Behavioural Insights Team and Denver’s Marketing Department to encourage individuals to sign up for Pocketgov.com. The most popular email used a good amount of humor to make this option more salient.
Another great strategy to make an option more attractive is to personalize the message. Simply by signing an individual’s name, or by specifically naming an individual in the message (e.g. “Dear Jon Snow”), we can nudge people towards one choice or another. A great example of this is in Lexington, where volunteers wrote “Hey <Lisa>, you really need to read this” on the outside of the envelope. This simple message dramatically increased the amount of payments made, to the tune of $112,000 in a single month.
We tend to go along with decisions that others have made and have an innate desire to fit in with the pack. For example, when people enter an elevator and wait, they all face the same direction. Most people will assume that other people already made the correct decision, especially if the majority has already done so. There’s a social pressure to make a certain decision if most people have already done so, or if they are compared to others in some way. Another example of this is home energy reports from utility companies detailing how their energy usage compares to their neighbors. Showing that their energy usage is greater than their more efficient neighbors nudges those homeowners to change their energy usage habits.
Denver applied the strategy of showing descriptive norms in one of its first nudge projects with the Treasury department, Tax Compliance division. Its standard letters weren’t getting much traction, so they tried a couple other versions of the letter using different compelling messages to encourage businesses to file their taxes online. The most successful letter used a social norm message, saying that “most businesses file online, so you should too.” The result was a 70% increase in online submissions, for no extra cost.
There are certain points in our lives where we are more receptive to specific messages than in other times. For example, when we move to a new place, we may be more likely to engage in new activities, get involved in new social groups, and be more outgoing. This means that neighborhood associations may be able to increase membership by reaching out to new neighbors as opposed to existing neighbors. Additionally, when someone spells out when, how, and where they will do something, they are more likely to do that.
In the book Switch the authors Chip and Dan Heath give the example of a college professor who asked some members of their class to detail what will prompt them to do their extra credit assignment over the holiday break, where they will do it, and what sort of environment they will work in. The professor found that the students who specifically noted what they intended to do were more likely to complete the extra credit assignment than the other students.
Denver Peak Academy is training city employees to apply these concepts to their work in both our weeklong Black Belt class and in a separate two-day training. Opportunities abound to use the EAST framework to brainstorm innovations to encourage greater participation from residents, including online license plate renewal, registering to vote, and recruiting foster parents. We’re excited to see what the future holds by moving in this direction!