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Sanford Pilots Local Government Innovation Program

October 12, 2015

by Carol Jackson

The timing could not have been better. On September 15, President Obama issued an executive order: use behavioral science insights to better serve the American people.

Two days later, 70 mayors, city managers and others from 30 local governments in North Carolina gathered at a Sanford School workshop to learn about that very thing. What is behavioral science, and how can it be used to spur innovation at the local level?

As Obama’s order spelled out, research findings from fields such as behavioral economics and psychology -- which analyze how people actually make decisions and act on them -- can inspire better, more successful government policies.

The local officials learned from among the best in the field. Dan Ariely, professor in the Sanford School, and James B. Duke Professor of behavioral economics, has authored three best-selling books on the topic: Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

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  • Two government officials chatting

    Lots to discuss

    Seventy people spent two days talking about what innovation looks like at the local government level.

    Photo credit: Katherine Zhou

Peter Ubel, the Madge and Dennis T. McLawhorn University Professor of Business, Public Policy and Medicine at Duke, uses the tools of decision psychology and behavioral economics to explore health care topics like informed consent, shared decision making and health care cost containment.

Bryan Sivak also addressed the crowd. As chief innovation officer to Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, he led that state’s efforts to embed concepts of innovation into the DNA of state government. Later he was chief technology officer for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Sivak ran an “Idea Lab” in which he identified government workers with good ideas, and gave them six months and $10,000 dollars to try those ideas out.

Sivak discovered six months was too long, and the money didn’t matter much. People just needed a green light to try fresh ideas.

The results were “remarkable, a game changer,” he said, adding that some of the best ideas came from those “who had been in the bowels of the CDC for 20 years.” Sivak encouraged the workshop participants present to attempt small acts of innovation on specific problems, noting such small successes build momentum and trust. 

“It all comes down to trust,” he said.

New Initiative

The workshop kicked off a local government policy innovation initiative at Sanford. Fifty students from Sanford and the Pratt School of Engineering are enrolled in Ariely’s yearlong “Behavioral Economics for Municipal Policy” course. They will work in small teams with the local government leaders to design “behavioral interventions” to address specific problems.

One of the local government partners is Bertha Johnson, budget and management services director for the city of Durham. The city already has a focus on innovation and she was inspired by the workshop.

“This is the first time I have ever engaged with Duke in a meaningful way that’s not about money,” she said. “Let’s leverage our capital, our human capital, to improve the community we love.”

students listen carefully

Several Masters of Public Policy Students attended the two-day event. Credit: Katherine Zhou

Professor Peter Ubel addresses the crowd

Prof. Peter Ubel addressed the crowd. Credit: Katherine Zhou