Behavioral Science


Can changing the phrasing of a tax collection letter increase local government revenue? Can text messages from a health department encourage city residents to get a check-up? Can city school districts offering opt-out SAT testing during the school day (rather than opt-in on weekends) nudge more students toward applying for college?

By using behavioral science – the study of why people do things – to craft “nudges” or small tweaks to policies and programs that help increase the chances of a particular outcome, local governments can save money, improve services, and reach constituents in new ways. These highly successful, data driven approaches have the potential to improve health, strengthen education, and enhance local government programs. 

These approaches have been piloted, tested, and analyzed. Applying a behavioral science lens to city decisions, processes, and programs can result in cost-effective and testable approaches that can make significant impacts. By deconstructing large problems into small, addressable moments that make or break success, little changes can have big impacts. While applying behavioral science insights to public policy is a relatively new and innovative approach, cities have begun experimenting with tools to nudge residents toward better health, educational attainment, and more.

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What Cities Can Do

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Public Health

New Orleans, LA saw an uptick in response rates to an automated text message reminder to seek out a free health screening after the Office of Performance and Accountability experimented with the most engaging phrasing. 


As a way to remove barriers for low-income students applying to college, New York, NY plans to offer the SAT free during school hours, removing the cost barrier but also using choice architecture to make this important college preparation step the default option rather than an opt-in decision.


Nudges and choice architecture aren’t the only ways to innovate with behavioral science – experimenting with other ways that government operations can align with behavioral realities of constituents can yield better and more democratically engaged performance. An experiment in Boston, MA found that residents who visited a webpage with the full status of the City’s responses (or delays in responding) to service requests had more positive views about government generally as well as expanding the scale of government programs after engaging with this more transparent display.