U.S. Government Forms Behavioral Insights Team

320px-White_House_FrontThe U.S. government is recruiting members for a Behavioral Insights Team with the goal of studying human behavior to “design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals.” Similar groups, such as the British program developed in the UK to construct cheap, shrewd solutions, have been nicknamed ‘nudge squads’ by critics. Some political strategists are concerned about the program attempting to ‘nudge’ people into making specific choices, arguing that the government does not always know best.  Behavioral Insights Team supporters  believe social scientists should become more involved in policy and help to create plausible interventions.

Senior Insight Business Development Director Nizar Kasaballi has experience with similar programs. He explains, “[This is] yet another experiment in the U.S. that will be implemented. A handful of analysts will plot numbers on a spreadsheet with some weird formula deciding the future of 250 million Americans. I don’t think this is the way forward.” Kasaballi points to the U.S. financial sector as an example. “It is being driven by ‘analysts’ deciding what is the best for the banking and financial investors- and devising a strategy for how the borrowers are going to create well for them. Look what happened at the end of 2006.”

Zev Gross, a sustainable energy professional, discusses programs like the Behavioral Insights Team that have been implemented in other industries. “In the energy efficiency field ‘nudges’ have been in place for years and years. They are called ‘Market Transformation’ methodologies and include Standards, Regulation, Education, and Advertising. During implementation of the strategies behind these methodologies, the question was never ‘Is the government right?’ The question was ‘Is the market transformation succeeding?’ So this type of program has existed for a long time.”

Regarding whether the new team will have a positive or negative affect on people in the U.S. Gross says, “The introduction of behavioral scientists into a market transformation environment is no more threatening than their participation in the advertising industry. Under the assumption that the market transformation goals are reasonable, the utilization of behavioral patterns to enhance their effectiveness is great. If the goals are not good or reasonable, they should not be attempted, irrespective of behavioral background.”

Dr. Val Samonis has worked with top policy reformers as well as business and economic leaders in many developed and emerging markets, supporting government efforts. “This is the time of great breakthrough in basic social and economic trends,” says Samonis. The breakthrough is given rise to by the end of the ‘Great Leontieff Wave’ inglobal economy. This is not the average economic cycle where it is better for most solutions to be produced predominantly by markets. Therefor such efforts by the U.S. government are called for and very much needed.” In terms of using the U.K. Behavioral Insights Team as a model, Samonis says, “I think that the U.K. program is a good model, but only partially- as it deals with specific rather small-scale improvement efforts. The U.S. Government needs to add broader behavioral economics aspects, discuss them, and point to the lines of new institutional solutions.”

The White House is working on such projects with approximately a dozen departments in Washington. The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services have current projects underway. However, the U.S. Behavioral Insights Team is still in its early stages.

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