Nudging compliance in government: A human-centered approach to public sector program design

Article by Michelle Cho, Joshua Schoop, Timothy Murphy: “What are the biggest challenges facing government? Bureaucracy? Gridlock? A shrinking pool of resources?

Chances are compliance—when people act in accordance with preset rules, policies, and/or expectations—doesn’t top the list for many. Yet maybe it should. Compliance touches nearly every aspect of public policy implementation. Over the past 10 years, US government spending on compliance reached US$7.5 billion.

Even the most sophisticated and well-planned policies often require cooperation and input from real humans to be successful. From voluntary tax filing at the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to reducing greenhouse emissions at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to achieving the public policy outcomes decision-makers intend, compliance is fundamental.

Consider these examples of noncompliance and their costs:

  • Taxes. By law, the IRS requires all income-earning, eligible constituents to file and pay their owed taxes. Tax evasion—the illegal nonpayment or underpayment of tax—cost the federal government an average of US$458 billion per year between 2008 and 2010.3 The IRS believes it will recover just 11 percent of the amount lost in that time frame.
  • The environment. The incorrect disposal of recyclable materials has cost more than US$744 million in the state of Washington since 2009.4 The city audit in San Diego found that 76 percent of materials disposed of citywide are recyclable and estimates that those recyclables could power 181,000 households for a year or conserve 3.4 million barrels of oil.5

Those who fail to comply with these rules could face direct and indirect consequences, including penalties and even jail time. Yet a significant subset of the population still behaves in a noncompliant manner. Why?

Behavioral sciences offer some clues. Through the combination of psychology, economics, and neuroscience, behavioral sciences demonstrate that people do not always do what is asked of them, even when it seems in their best interest to do so. Often, people choose a noncompliant path because of one of these reasons: They are unaware of their improper behavior, they find the “right” choice is too complex to decipher, or they simply are not intrinsically motivated to make the compliant choice.

For any of these reasons, when a cognitive hurdle emerges, some people resort to noncompliant behavior. But these hurdles can be overcome. Policymakers can use these same behavioral insights to understand why noncompliance occurs and alternatively, employ behavioral-inspired tools to encourage compliant behavior in a more agile and resource-efficient fashion.

In this spirit, leaders can take a more human-centered approach to program design by using behavioral science lessons to develop policies and programs in a manner that can make compliance easier and more appealing. In our article, we discuss three common reasons behind noncompliance and how better, more human-centered design can help policymakers achieve more positive results….(More)”.