Smart Cities

Using Behavioral Science to Improve Government Programs



Government services and processes should be developed around the behavior of individuals as opposed to requiring individuals to drastically change their behavior. Recent collaborations between behavioral science researchers and government entities across the country have demonstrated the power of incorporating insights from the social and behavioral sciences in making City operations more effective.


Traditionally, government services have been designed from a neo-classical economics perspective, assuming all individuals involved would behave ‘rationally’ – that is, individuals would consider the costs and benefits of all decisions and act in their own self-interest. A business owner, then, would opt to register her business in a timely manner by paying the $30 renewal fee to avoid paying the $1,000 in penalty. Drivers would always choose to pay $1.00 to secure an hour at a parkometer instead of $70 in parking ticket fees. All eligible college-bound students would make sure to fill out the FAFSA form in time for a chance to financially support their education.
The reality is that individuals consistently and often unintentionally act in violation of these. A second approach to designing government services then would rely on the admission that humans often act ‘irrational’: We procrastinate, forget, feel overwhelmed, make erroneous predictions, and sometimes simply lack information. In the end, we’re human! Government services and processes therefore should be developed around the behavior of individuals as opposed to requiring individuals to drastically change their behavior. The good news is that humans are irrational in systematic and predictable ways, and decades of research by Behavioral Economists and Psychologists offer great insight into these patterns.


As one of the first projects to test out the behavioral insights approach in Los Angeles, Mayor Garcetti’s Innovation Team has been working closely with the Office of Finance to bring in such expertise to improve business registration processes. The team received an Innovation grant to procure behavioral science services. Through this project, we will improve the experiences of Los Angeles business owners by letting them focus on thriving their business instead of filing complex forms in time.
Additionally, the team is partnering with the Behavioral Science and Policy Association, (BSPA) based out of UCLA, to collaborate with behavioral scientists and economists. The team is currently in the process of developing a behavioral science council of advisers in hopes of promoting more behaviorally-based approaches in the City and testing out ideas through low-cost evaluations.



Office of Finance, Innovation and Performance Commission, Behavioral Science and Policy Association