Carolina Better and Katie SilvaMarch 12, 2019

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ideas42 is a nonprofit organization that uses applied behavioral science to create innovative solutions that encompass health, education, consumer finance, safety and justice, environmental sustainability, governance and ending poverty and inequality. In collaboration with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, ideas42 is working towards improving government responsiveness to citizen requests submitted through civic monitoring platforms. Their qualitative and quantitative research methods define the behavioral problems and diagnose the behavioral impediments to the decisions and actions of beneficiaries, in this case government officials. They then design and test new or modified program delivery methods to “nudge” beneficiaries towards realizing better outcomes, in this case responding more efficiently to citizen requests. As ideas42 looks to scale the program globally, they asked the LabStorm community:

How can improving government responsiveness be operationalized across different governments and cultures?

  1. Context matters. ideas42 has separated the process of city officials’ responsiveness into seven specific steps: 1) Verify the accuracy of the request, 2) Forward to the correct department, 3) Assign responsibility, 4) Prioritize requests, 5) Execute and monitor actions necessary to resolve the request, 6) Update request status, 7) Notify citizen. But when scaling the program, which step to prioritize? One of the cities they visited as part of their preliminary investigation sends a survey to citizen requesters after the closure of their request. As a result, the city may be incentivized to focus on satisfaction rather than speed and spends more time on step 5. Some governments use response time as a measure of success and may be likely to jump too quickly to step 7 and notify the citizen that the problem is resolved before truly tying up loose ends. Others still have incentives in place that prevent requests from being closed too quickly. Since each city faces different challenges, and thus have differing priorities, ideas42 will likely adapt their consulting strategy to each context.
  2. Pay attention to patterns. Though each government is different, there may be trends in responsiveness. By tracking the citizen request resolution process, ideas42 can look for common bottlenecks across governments. For example, if they see that the process consistently breaks when mid-level officials are in charge, they can focus their nudging efforts on the steps that mid-level officials are specifically involved in.
  3. Don’t forget the politics! Politicians may have unsaid motives in their relationship with citizen feedback. For instance, they may prioritize increasing responsiveness in neighborhoods where their constituents are located. One way to eliminate this political bias and improve equitable treatment of citizens from diverse neighborhoods is to improve transparency. But how? Some attendees suggested an interactive public map that displays citizen requests across the city and their respective response times. A public display of response time could incentivize governments and politicians to work through requests in an equitable way, rather than prioritizing their political agendas. Another way to improve transparency is to find a fun way for citizens to hold their government officials accountable. What if every time a citizen request is sent to a new department, the requester could receive a notification from an app? Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard Business School, argued that incorporating a notification system in Boston’s monitoring app similar to the Domino’s pizza delivery app, would promote citizen satisfaction (though perhaps not as much satisfaction as when they are awaiting a pizza delivery). Government responsiveness has the potential to make citizens more likely to participate.

This LabStorm reminded us of the complexities of responding to citizen feedback and that government responsiveness sometimes falls short. What is the key to improving public sector service provision? ideas42 believes that applied behavioral science has the potential to uncover new ways to improve government responsiveness. Do you have expertise in improving government service provision? Please share your expertise in the comments below, or by emailing [email protected].

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