The Asia Foundation and ideas42 Release Roadmap for Public Service Reform Rooted in Behavioral Science

Report lays out new tools for helping governments reform, fight corruption, and better respond to citizens

December 11, 2020 — In view of underperforming and costly efforts to improve public service delivery across most of the world, ideas42 and The Asia Foundation today released a new report, Official Action: A Roadmap for Using Behavioral Science in Public Administration Reform. The insights in Official Action combine more than a decade of experience applying behavioral science to public policy with a deepening but still relatively new scientific literature.

Complexity is at the heart of public service reform. Such systems are characterized by being underbudgeted, limited by difficult power balances that don’t always lend themselves toward collaboration, hierarchical performance systems that serve the present not future, interagency territorial barriers to cooperation, among other issues. In the limited space for feasible reform within this complexity, behavior change may be the nudge required to wiggle open further efficiencies to change-minded alterations with potentially significant knock-on effects.

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the need for innovative approaches to government reform as public institutions around the world struggle to perform basic functions like coordinating timely public information campaigns, steering economic resources to those who need them, and procuring essential medical and protective equipment and supplies. Official Action shows that these failures are not simply due to a lack of resources, accountability, competence, or motivation; but that they may be symptoms of the unique stresses that public servants face which, if left unchecked, can derail even the most dedicated officials.

The report offers new solutions to everyday challenges, such as ensuring that all complaints and requests receive equal treatment, helping frontline bureaucrats operate efficiently despite increasing workloads, and fighting corruption within public institutions by demonstrating that governance failures are in large part due to the situations that public servants find themselves in, rather than individual shortcomings. When barriers like constant changes in work environment, unrealistic workloads, and parallel systems for getting things done exist, the best policies to improve government performance will be those that support better use of public servants’ limited time and realign institutional incentives to encourage behavior change.

“If Covid-19 and its attendant policy challenges have shown us anything, it is that innovation in government is as sorely needed as ever.” said Josh Martin, co-author of the report and a managing director at ideas42. “Government service provision, at its root, is about the behavior of individuals within a system, and we hope this paper serves as a guide to support the individuals responsible for keeping governments running, and indeed, improving.”

This report, co-published with The Asia Foundation, is among the first to offer a practical roadmap for public sector reformers to apply behavioral science as a complement to existing reform programs. It offers both a methodology for designing behavioral interventions in government as well as pragmatic rules of thumb for selecting behaviors to focus on, institutions to target, and context-appropriate impact evaluation techniques. Case studies summarize prominent examples of previous applications to issues, such as the fight against corruption and an initial case study drawing on insights from fieldwork conducted on decentralization in Nepal.

“In many developing countries, public sector reform is a ‘wicked problem’ – one that defies traditional solutions,” says Meghan Nalbo, country representative for The Asia Foundation in Nepal. “Partnering with governments to support reform objectives requires us to develop and test new approaches. We all act according to (however unwittingly) mental models, most often unconscious. Behavioral science stands to complement traditional power analysis and incentive analyses tools that may be supporting or prohibiting transformative change.”

The paper was produced by a team of behavioral scientists and experienced government service providers at ideas42 with financial and technical support from The Asia Foundation. The full paper can be found here. ideas42 is a nonprofit that uses insights from human behavior—why people do what they do—to help improve lives, build better systems, and drive social change. For more than a decade, we’ve been at the forefront of applying behavioral science in the real world. Their efforts have so far extended to 45 countries as we’ve partnered with governments, foundations, NGOs, private enterprises, and a wide array of public institutions–in short, anyone who wants to make a positive difference in peoples’ lives.

The Asia Foundation is a nonprofit international development organization committed to improving lives across a dynamic and developing Asia. Informed by six decades of experience and deep local expertise, our work across the region addresses five overarching goals—strengthen governance, empower women, expand economic opportunity, increase environmental resilience, and promote international cooperation.

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Related locations: Nepal
Related programs: Strengthen Governance

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