Lessons from Building a Behavioral Science Initiative in City Government

There’s been a recent boom in applying behavioral science to public policy. Although it started with federal-level efforts, like the Behavioral Insights Team in the United Kingdom and the Social Behavioral Sciences Team in the United States, cities have increasingly been getting in on the act. Here in Philadelphia, we focus on bringing together city officials, local academic leaders, and community organizations to deliver better services for our residents and businesses.

In 2016, we started the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative, one of the country’s first sustained, direct collaborations between city policymakers and local academics. The initiative has launched more than a dozen projects to address the needs of Philadelphia’s residents. These include increasing recycling and reducing litter, expanding the use of our bike-share program, helping homeowners sort out tangled titles, and improving sales compliance among tobacco retailers.

The program pairs city departments and local researchers to address urgent policy issues through research and pilot testing. As these partnerships grow, agreements are crafted that allow researchers to publish the findings while protecting the security of sensitive data. It is explicitly designed to be a win-win for everyone.

That’s the good news. But things have not always been easy. We have learned a lot about how to do things (and how not to do them). So here are a few lessons we have learned along the way—hopefully they will be useful for others who might want to follow our blueprint.

Lesson #1: Go Local

Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative draws on expertise from Philadelphia’s local colleges and universities. When starting out, it’s easy to get starstruck by the big names in behavioral science. Instead of flying in high-profile partners, find younger faculty or academics with an applied focus in government who call your city, county, or state home. Going local creates a virtuous cycle in which researchers can apply their skills locally and get a richer view of the problem. It’s easier to see and experience the problem first-hand, incorporate feedback from constituents, meet in-person, and build relationships that can be sustained for many years. Connecting local academics to local government builds trust between two groups that care about their shared community.

For Philadelphia leaders, partnering with local academics means investing in local talent and spending less time on clarifying how the city works, as local academics are familiar with the city. Local partnerships also make it easier for the city to trust that academics will truly incorporate constituent feedback and design randomized control trials (RCTs) that serve Philadelphians.

Connecting local academics to local government builds trust between two groups that care about their shared community.

Lesson #2: Define the Partnership

Sometimes, city leaders and academics disagree about either the status of a project or where it should be leading. For both parties, this can be frustrating. For example, a city department might not understand the virtues of an RCT in a given context or an academic’s motivations for the collaboration (it’s likely to be publication). An academic may not understand why implementation of an RCT (or a specific experimental condition) is impossible in a given circumstance.

Know that it takes time to develop a partnership that’s mutually beneficial. City leadership should support the academic needs of a given project and protect the time and effort of academic partners. Additionally, when presented with implementation challenges, city leaders may need to make short-term compromises to ensure the research design follows the initial plan as closely as possible. For example, to ensure groups receive the assigned treatment for an intervention, a city department may need extra time to train front-line staff. Similarly, academics will often need to compromise, at times allowing city priorities to take precedence. For example, sometimes researchers will make contributions that do not necessarily lead to an academic publication. There is a balance between answering an important policy question and building the academic and theoretical evidence base—finding that balance is key.

Researchers: Our advice is to accept these norms at the outset, be respectful and willing to help, and know that your work is helping make your city better (even if it doesn’t add gloss to your C.V.).

City leaders: Our advice is to trust the process. Know that when you are faced with a choice regarding your operations, it is because the project team wants to get clear results for you on what works and what doesn’t work.

Lesson #3: Emphasize Cost-Savings

Cities across the nation are facing budget cuts at both the federal and state level. Philadelphia is no exception. Departments are often asked to provide the same level of services, or more, despite shrinking budgets.

In light of this, sharing behavioral science as cost cutting, time saving, or revenue generating is a winning approach. From their early efforts at the federal level, the Behavioral Insights Team and the Social Behavioral Sciences Team can attest to the usefulness of this tactic. Nothing appeals to policymakers and service providers more than saying you can help them do more with less (especially less money).

Of course, you need to walk the walk too. You can’t say “low cost” or “time saver” and then ask for tons of time and money for a new project. It helps to start with interventions that piggyback on existing processes or expenditures. Make the case that pursuing a certain policy at-scale from the start, without knowing if it is more cost effective than other options, is worse in a budgetary sense than running a smaller-scale RCT testing all the options simultaneously and then scaling up the most cost effective one.

There is a balance between answering an important policy question and building the academic and theoretical evidence base—finding that balance is key.

Lesson #4: Make the Process Easy

We understand that city departments face competing priorities and limited budgets, so from the start we make the expectations for partnering with Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative transparent. We want to protect departments from additional work. The idea is to integrate behavioral-science methodologies with their current work to achieve existing goals and to improve outcomes.

We (at the mayor’s Policy Office) make it as easy as possible for departments to participate. We do this by coordinating the meetings, keeping meetings on task, and serving as a resource during the life of the project. All Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative researchers maintain an active dialogue with departmental leaders to ensure that the process is working for them, and researchers remain open to feedback from their offices. If departments are unable to complete data-integration tasks or lack resources to complete data analysis on their own, we coordinate so that policy fellows support the departments and finish what otherwise would not get done.

Lesson #5: Create a Shared Language

The academics on our team have learned quickly that terms like “hyperbolic discounting” or “cognitive dissonance theory” don’t always generate the same excitement with policy folks as they do in academic seminars. Our partnerships move more smoothly when we establish a shared, plain language during meetings and in meeting memos. For example, it saves time and effort for both groups when what we mean by “behavioral science” is clearly defined from the beginning. Otherwise, the work can mistakenly be perceived as creating marketing campaigns, community engagement plans, or conducting a survey. Academics, take heed—don’t try to impress with your esoteric wording.

Academics aren’t the only ones who need to tone it down. There are a lot of acronyms used in city government. Imagine hearing this legitimate sentence: The MPO and the MDO will work with the ZWL to get data for R1 and R3 with Streets. Say what? At Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative, the city leaders have been increasingly mindful of language to ensure that researchers understand city processes, outcomes, and departmental partners.

This may seem like minutiae, but it’s not. It is hard to raise your hand and say, “Wait, what are you all talking about?” in the middle of meeting, particularly if you head a government agency or have a Ph.D. These “little things” and small misunderstandings can snowball into big problems.

Get a lawyer, and be nice to him or her.

Lesson #6: Make Nice with Your Lawyer

All of our research projects require Institutional Review Board approval or exemptions. Any projects that share city data require legal review. To make a long story short, if you plan to bring behavioral science to your city, you’re going to need a lawyer.

Here in Philadelphia, the city’s legal department has been instrumental in providing counsel and support for our projects. The department ensures that data-sharing agreements are clear, data are kept confidential, federal privacy laws (e.g., HIPPA) aren’t violated, and our projects do not put anyone at risk.

Navigating this process without direction or support can take months and even years. We are thankful for the city’s legal department. So our advice—get a lawyer, and be nice to him or her!

Lesson #7: One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Every project partnership looks different. We have over 10 city partners and five academic partners. When implementing RCTs, various city partners have vastly different needs. Some departments need support in developing research questions, pulling together appropriate data, or thinking through the details of implementing an RCT. In short, our group has to adapt to each partner’s unique needs.

Our research partners also have diverse skills, experiences, and research interests. Researchers that work with us are leaders in psychology, public health, business, marketing, political science, and economics. It’s important to match researchers with departments based on what researchers bring to the table.

Another important consideration is city departments’ existing capacities. Some departments may have in-house data units that can pull and de-identify data without support. Departments that do not have data units or analysts will need additional support and time. It’s important to think about these things earlier rather than later.

Lesson #8: Embed Behavioral Science in Broader Initiatives

Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative’s early policy success built some important momentum for evidence-based innovation. In February 2017, the mayor’s office launched GovLabPHL, a multiagency team focused on promoting evidence-based and data-driven policymaking. GovLabPHL aims to communicate the impact of behavioral science with city employees and the public. It also aims to support trauma-informed care, service design, and other evidence-based approaches that are being used across Philadelphia. In June 2017, GovLabPHL launched the GovLabPHL Bookclub, a program designed to teach city employees about using evidence-based methods in city government. The program’s first two books were Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Moneyball for Government, published by Results for America. We recently hosted a podcast edition of our book club, an episode featuring entertaining sound bites on the application of behavioral insights.

In short, don’t make behavioral science just a thing for policy wonks and academics tucked away in conference rooms in city hall—embed it into the fabric of city operations and make it a broader positive force for promoting evidence-based policy.

Click here to download a PDF of the Philadelphia Behavioral Science Initiative’s Tips for Building a Behavioral Science Initiative in City Government.