After recent success, NYC wants to embed behavioral design in more projects

A program led from the mayor's office seeks to give more prominence to the science of how people make decisions and process information.

When new systems are being built, Matthew Klein wants government to start thinking about behavioral design.

Klein is the executive director of the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity), which oversees a behavioral design program that released positive results earlier this week from its initial pilots and announced a two-year funding extension that will allow the city to dig deeper into programs around public health, workforce, education and others.

The city found that by making small adjustments to how it engaged with residents, it could produce big results. That’s the core appeal of behavioral design, which notes how people make decisions and then applies that knowledge to encourage certain behaviors. For instance, the concept of loss aversion holds that, irrationally, people are much more driven by the fear of loss than the promise of gaining something of equal value. Studies show that loss can be a motivator twice as powerful — the average human experience around finding a dollar on the ground is merely pleasant, but losing a dollar is devastating.

Klein says he wants government to understand and apply such principles when designing its systems. He’s not necessarily calling for every department to start conducting its own research, but to use the existing knowledge to inform design.


“It’s not as if the way we work now is neutral and we’re layering something called design on top of it,” Klein said. “Everything we do already reflects some kind of design and assumptions about behavior and about how people will react to government work. What this does is bring a level of intentionality and science to examine how we work and to see if we can make changes to our practices that give a better result.”

It’s about the citizen

What Klein and his office are calling for is an extension of a movement already underway in the technology world. Human-centered design has become increasingly important to developers as technology has become a more integral and intimate element of peoples’ lives. Government agencies have increasingly taken to building applications and websites that recognize the average person does not understand how government works, how its structured, or what any of its jargon means. Behavioral design takes that concept a step further by not only putting the user at the center of design, but also taking in account tendencies uncovered by cognitive and behavioral psychologists.

Philadelphia launched a team called GovLabPHL to extend its behavioral science program last year. The Behavioural Insights Team in the U.K., also known as the “nudge unit” has been applying these ideas in government since 2010. Former President Barack Obama employed a Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to drive program policy across more than 40 agency partnerships.

Changes can be as simple as rewording a letter sent to collect a late fee or using a different sized envelope. New York City discovered it could get more people to show up to court if it sent text message reminders with information about potential penalties, how the process works and where people needed to go.


Klein likens the maturation trajectory of behavioral science to that of data analytics, which was a highly specialized discipline up until just a few years ago.

“Increasingly, agencies across the city develop their own internal data analytics capabilities and as the value of that gets evangelized and spreads, more folks are doing it and you see that adding value in much more pockets across the city,” Klein said.

He says wants to see the same thing happen with behavioral design, and given the results that some recent low-cost implementations have delivered, the shift he’s calling for may already be underway.

“The field of behavioral insights has been around for a long time depending on how you reckon, but it’s really only been getting done in an applied way for the past 10, 15 years in any meaningful sense,” said Anthony Barrows, managing director of ideas42, the design firm that is helping NYC Opportunity figure out how to nudge its residents toward the behaviors it wants.

Improving things at the very start


Barrows says the cost-benefit analysis for programs like NYC’s court text reminders is “through the roof.” The positive feedback they’re getting so far, he said, is encouraging them to take a deeper look at their work.

Their long-term strategy, he said, is to go beyond making tweaks to existing processes here and there and to embed these concepts into the design of systems at the most foundational levels. They want behavioral science to inform how citizens are interacting with a government’s food assistance program, for example.

This idea isn’t entirely new. Human-centered design and ease of use were central ideas in how Code for America helped California retool its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program applications. The difference is that ideas42 is more of a specialist. They’re not technologists, Barrows said.

“We like to partner in a tripartite kind of way to ensure what we know about behavioral science and how people choose and end up acting is really baked into the more technical skills that someone like a web developer can bring to the table,” Barrows said.

In NYC, the team partnered with the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications for the technology component.


In less than a month, Barrows said ideas42 will release a playbook that highlights the lessons they’ve learned so far applying behavioral design in government as they look forward to a more ambitious approach.

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