How do you nudge someone to act a certain way? With a word of praise or a jab in the ribs?

It depends. The White House set up a dedicated unit to answer this question, looking at how to persuade citizens using behavioural economics. It has since gathered its findings, and laid out four pointers that public sector officials should take note of.

1. Simplify access to services

Programmes that have tricky registration procedures, lengthy wait times and costly travel expenses may turn citizens away from signing up. The team suggests streamlining access to these services by simplifying forms, and using auto-filling technology so that residents won’t have to refill personal information the government already has.

Automated enrolling can also save eligible individuals the time to reapply for similar programmes, the White House notes in its published guide.

2. Use incentives

People respond to incentives – this is an obvious point. But the way incentives are structured will change the way citizens respond to them. And this isn’t just restricted to financial incentives; social pressure works too.

The group found that immediate incentives are more effective than delayed ones. For example, tax incentives for purchases of hybrid vehicles are more effective at attracting buyers, as compared to income tax credits, which happen long after the purchase.

It’s also important to make incentives salient to individuals – and this can be done “if they are provided in isolation, rather than as part of a larger payment such as an income tax refund”, the guide states. Research carried out on retirement savings credit showed that citizens were more likely to save if benefits were structured to match savings, instead of tax credits.

Negative incentives are also more likely to meet a response than positive ones. The guide highlights a study where a 5 cent tax on disposable grocery bags led to a reduce in plastic bag usage, whereas a 5 cent reward for using reusable bags “had no effect”.

3. Cut down alternatives

More choices often lead to poor decision-making. “Research demonstrates that individuals can have difficulty choosing, and choosing consistently, when choices involve numerous alternatives, vary along multiple or complex dimensions, involve assessments of probability or risk, or have a substantial time dimension”, it writes.

The team suggests that governments can set default choices, where it is applicable across a majority. Also, public agencies should provide assistance to citizens to explain complex information to them.

4. Repackaging information

Sometimes the way information is presented will affect users’ understanding. The team believes that government should shape information in a way that is relevant to its audience.

For instance, “the presentation of automotive fuel efficiency in gallons per mile, rather than miles per gallon, led individuals to form more accurate judgements about the relative benefits of alternative automotive purchases”, it states.

If anything – it’s proof that this experimentation helps understand citizens, and communications can always be improved. Just leave the jabs at the door.

Image by Riley, licensed under CC BY 2.0