Biden’s Faith in Behavioral Science Will Pay Off

In the impressively detailed memorandum on “scientific integrity” that President Joe Biden recently released, one provision could easily escape notice. It’s an explicit endorsement of behavioral science — and it calls for much more of it.

The provision requires the director of the Office of Management and Budget to produce, within 120 days, “guidance to improve agencies’ evidence-building plans and annual evaluation plans.” It calls out President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13707, issued in 2015, which has guided the use of behavioral science by government officials. Biden’s memorandum instructs the OMB director to build on that order and to work toward better practices.

According to the memorandum, those practices “might include use of pilot projects, randomized control trials, quantitative-survey research, and statistical analysis.” In general, the goal is to build on “approaches that may be informed by the social and behavioral sciences and data science.”

There’s a strong signal here. Obama’s agencies, including his Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, used behavioral sciences to produce creative solutions to policy problems.

For example, the Department of Agriculture did a great deal with its “direct certification” program, which automatically enrolls poor children in free school-lunch programs (and is helping millions of kids annually). Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation adopted a new fuel economy label, informed by behavioral science, designed to help consumers make informed choices (and to save money and reduce greenhouse gases in the process). The Food and Drug Administration created a new Nutrition Facts panel, also informed by behavioral science, intended to make the healthy choice the easier choice.

Under President Donald Trump, some of this work continued. The Social and Behavioral Sciences Team became the Office of Evaluation Sciences, and it had some terrific successes. But under Trump, the use of behavioral science to promote policy goals was much less frequent and much less systematic — and it lacked White House leadership.

Biden’s memorandum is a powerful indicator that behavioral science has a real place in dealing with numerous problems — Covid-19, most urgently, but also climate change, racial discrimination, poverty and others. Behavioral research offers a host of helpful lessons for dealing with the hesitancy many people have about getting the vaccine, for example. And in the coming months, it will be essential to identify approaches that will increase the likelihood that people will continue to take sensible precautions, like wearing masks.

But what, meanwhile, should the OMB director’s guidance say? Here’s one part of the answer, some low-hanging fruit: Eliminate paperwork burdens, red tape and wait times, collectively also known as “sludge.”

According to the most recent figures, the U.S. imposes more than 11 billion hours in annual paperwork burdens on people. The Treasury Department — including the Internal Revenue Service — is responsible for eight billion of those hours. But the Department of Health and Human Services claims 1.3 billion. And the millions all add up: the Department of Transportation is responsible for 185 million; the Department of Labor 177 million; and the Social Security Administration 44 million, just for starters.

Mind you, these are the official numbers. The actual hours devoted to paperwork, as a result of government requirements, are undoubtedly a lot higher.

For many Americans, sludge operates as a wall separating them from opportunities, training, education or employment. If, for example, you are trying to get financial assistance, licenses or permits to which you are entitled, the paperwork might defeat you.

Behavioral science helps explain why. Many people procrastinate, and inertia is a powerful force. If people need to stand in line or fill out complicated forms or wait on hold for two hours, they might simply give up.

In many cases, the result is serious injustice. The principal victims of sludge often turn out to be poor, sick or female. People of color and the elderly also tend to suffer disproportionate harm. Consider the challenge in terms of navigability of just scheduling Covid-19 vaccine appointments — a challenge that older people find especially difficult to meet.

The coming OMB guidance could suggest a number of solutions. Behavioral science has shown that if people are automatically enrolled in some program — say, a 401(k) plan or green energy — participation rates tend to jump dramatically. Automatic enrollment can combat inequality. Clear reminders can have large and beneficial effects, because they trigger people’s attention. Simplification of program requirements can also have large beneficial effects, especially for the most vulnerable members of society.

One of the many virtues of Biden’s order is that it licenses the Office of Management and Budget to put a bright spotlight on that fact.

As administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012, I was involved in some of that work.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author of “Too Much Information” and a co-author of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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