White House Announces New Steps to Improve Federal Programs by Leveraging Research Insights

Factsheet: “Today the White House will announce new actions to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of Federal programs by leveraging research insights about how people participate in, engage with, and respond to programs. Announcements include: an Executive Order, new guidance to Federal agencies to make government forms simpler and easier, and a report from the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

The report features the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team’s first year of projects, which have made government programs easier to access and more user-friendly, and have boosted program efficiency and integrity. As a result of these projects, more Servicemembers are saving for retirement, more students are going to college, more Veterans are accessing their benefits, more farmers are obtaining credit, and more families are gaining healthcare coverage.

The Federal Government administers a wide array of programs on behalf of the American people, such as financial aid to assist with college access and workplace savings plans to promote retirement security. Americans are best served when these programs are easy to access and when program choices and information are presented clearly. When programs are designed without these considerations in mind, Americans can incur real consequences. One behavioral science study found, for example, that a complex application process for college financial aid not only decreased applications for aid, but also led some students to delay or forgo going to college altogether.

Behavioral science insights—research insights about how people make decisions—not only identify aspects of programs that can act as barriers to engagement, but also provide policymakers with insight into how those barriers can be removed through commonsense steps, such as simplifying communications and making choices more clear. That same study on financial aid found that streamlining the process of applying—by providing families with assistance and enabling families to automatically fill parts of the application using information from their tax return—increased the rates of both aid applications and college enrollment.

When these insights are used to improve government, the returns can be significant. For instance, the Federal Government applied behavioral science insights to simplify the process of applying for Federal student aid and has made college more accessible to millions of American families. Similarly, the Pension Protection Act of 2006, which codified the practice of automatically enrolling workers into retirement savings plans, is based on behavioral economics research showing that switching from an opt-in to an opt-out enrollment system dramatically increases participation rates. Since the implementation of this policy, automatic enrollment and automatic escalation have led to billions of dollars in additional savings by Americans.

More Details on Today’s Announcements

Today, President Obama signed an Executive Order that directs Federal agencies to use behavioral science insights to better serve the American people. The Executive Order directs Federal agencies to identify programs in which applying behavioral science insights can yield substantial improvements; develop strategies for applying behavioral science insights to programs, and, where possible, for rigorously testing and evaluating the impact of these insights; recruit behavioral science experts to join the Federal Government; and strengthen agency relationships with the research community.

The Executive Order directs Federal agencies to take action in four areas in which prior research and practice indicate that behavioral science insights can play an especially strong role in program outcomes:

  • Streamlining access to programs: Agencies should look for opportunities to help qualifying individuals, families, and businesses access programs and benefits by streamlining processes that may otherwise limit participation.
  • Improving the presentation of information: Agencies should look for opportunities to improve how the government presents information to consumers, borrowers, and program beneficiaries by giving greater consideration to ways in which information format, timing, and medium can affect understanding.
  • Structuring choices carefully: Where programs and policies offer choices, agencies should carefully consider how the presentation and structure of those choices, including default settings and the number and arrangement of options, can empower participants to make the best choices for themselves and their families.
  • Considering a full range of incentives: Where policies create incentives to take specific actions, such as saving for retirement, agencies should consider how the frequency, presentation, and labeling of benefits, tax credits, and other incentives can more effectively and efficiently promote those actions, with a specific focus on opportunities to use nonfinancial incentives.

The Executive Order also formally establishes the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST), a group of experts in applied behavioral science that translates findings and methods from the social and behavioral sciences into improvements in Federal policies and programs for the benefit of the American people. The SBST is chaired by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and represents a dozen member agencies across the Federal Government, as well as offices within the Executive Office of the President. SBST also receives critical support from the General Services Administration. The Executive Order charges SBST with providing advice and policy guidance to Federal agencies in support of the order….(More)”