Obama Nudges Government Toward Better Behavior

Here comes the White House brainwashing that everyone was warning about.

The Obama administration issued an executive order Sept. 15 directing executive agencies and departments to find ways to use behavioral science to change the way people behave — giving them a “nudge” — in an effort to make government function more effectively and efficiently.

That’s a pretty big challenge, but officials say they are encouraged by early results from a White House group launched in 2014 known as the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team.

In one instance, the administration worked with the Health and Human Services Department to prompt applicants who had created an account on the federal health insurance marketplace to complete their application. The officials sent out eight versions of letters to applicants, one of which included a photo of the sender to “personalize the message,” as well as an invitation to the recipient to write down when they expected to complete the application. That letter boosted enrollments by 13.2 percent, while a letter with neither a picture nor a prompt boosted enrollment by just 1.8 percent.

In another effort, at the Agriculture Department, officials created a dialog box that popped up on employees’ computers that asked them to change the default setting on their computer from one- to double-sided printing. The prompt increased the likelihood that people would use double-sided printing by 5.8 percent.

“The social and behavioral sciences are real science — with immensely valuable, real, practical applications — the views of a few members of Congress to the contrary notwithstanding,” John P. Holdren, assistant to the president for science and technology, said at a rollout event.

A House bill (HR 1806) passed in May sliced funds to the National Science Foundation for research in the behavioral, economic and social sciences by 45 percent. The congressman who shepherded that bill through the House, Texas Republican Lamar Smith, made clear his stance on the softer sciences, calling them “lower priority areas.”

In June, the House passed a fiscal 2016 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill (HR 2578) that would cut social, behavioral, economic and geosciences by 20 percent over current spending levels.

Behavioral science has caught the attention of those abroad as well. In 2010, British Prime Minister David Cameron created what is believed to be the world’s first-ever government “nudge” unit.

President Barack Obama has long been a big fan of the notion. He chose legal scholar Cass Sunstein, a leading behavioral proponent, to helm the White House’s regulatory affairs office in 2009. And in 2012, he reportedly used a group of unpaid academic advisers to come up with ideas on how best to characterize Mitt Romney in ads, as well as fight the false rumors that the president is a Muslim.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of CQ Weekly.

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