How Government can restore the faith of citizens (using a behavioral nudge)..

A billion dollar (or trillion?) dollar question facing most citizens across the world. And this is perhaps the oldest research question which remains relevant today and likely to remain in future as well.

Michael Blanding at HBSWK summarise the findings of this recent research by HBS profs -Michael Norton and Ryan Buell.

What research says is something really simple and intuitive — Seeing is believing. So unless people see that the govt is working for them, they are always going to feel nothing is working. So, for a government to demonstrate its efforts it needs to show people that something is going on.

What is interesting in the research is how they come about these results:

In previous research , Buell and Norton had experimented with customer satisfaction in travel and dating websites. They found that when these sites visually showed the effort being exerted by the site during searches or transactions, customers were more likely to be satisfied while waiting for results. “There is a strange human tendency to value effort independent of outcome,” says Norton. “If you appear to be working hard and sweating, people will assume you are doing a good job.”

Buell and Norton put that into practice by partnering with an organization called Code for America, which describes itself as the “Peace Corps for Geeks.” Its coders take publicly available data and use technology to visualize the work of government for the public in accessible ways. In Boston, for example, the group worked with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics to release data on public works requests for repairs such as potholes, graffiti, and broken streetlights.

Using a cell phone application developed by the mayor’s office, citizens can request service by snapping a photo of the problem and uploading it to the city accompanied by GPS data of its location. These service requests are then visualized on Code for America’s Daily Brief website, which Buell and Norton used in their experiment.

The researchers worked with the organization to pilot several versions of the website, each with different visualizations of this data, in order to test its influence on citizens.

In their first website, they just show the basic details of the requests, In second version they also show the location of the site using a map. The second approach had much better response from the viewers who thought the government is working for them:

In the first iteration of the website, the researchers included only the number of open requests for repairs, along with the number of requests opened and closed the previous day, in order to show that government was actively responding to requests. In the second condition, they included pins on a map showing the location of these issues; when users clicked on a pin, a window opened showing a photo of the problem along with its description and location.

Buell and Norton found that when shown the second version of the website, users were much more impressed with the work that government was doing—and much more favorable about the efficacy of government overall.

“There’s a big difference between providing people with information about what’s being done and allowing them to see it for themselves,” says Buell. “Moving from the ‘base case’ where we just show statistics to a transparent version of the website that shows the problems that are being addressed, significantly improves attitudes towards government and government service.”

When asked if “Government often does a better job than given credit for,” only 34 percent of people agreed after viewing the first case; but some 57 percent agreed after the second case. Seeing the visual evidence of government working had broader implications as well. When participants were asked, “In general, is the government’s effect on your life positive or negative?” 76 percent said “positive” after viewing the first case—but a full 91 percent gave that answer after viewing the second.

This is really bit of a behavioral nudge using pictures, visual tools etc to show performance.

Infact, there is a catch. It is not as if one can be transparent with everything. In the third edition, the authors also added on the map the total number if sites where there was a problem. So you had two kinds of pins – one showing all the problem sites and two those in which work was completed. As latter usually is a smaller number, this led to people having lower ratings!

Those results, however, suggest that effort by itself is not enough; it must also be coupled with a positive outcome. Norton compares it to results in their online dating research in which users were more satisfied when they saw the website working hard for them during searching-but only if they ended with attractive or average looking people at the end of the search. “If they received less attractive people, they were actually angrier,” says Norton. “They could blame themselves, but of course no one ever did.”

In the same way, citizens may be happier with their government if they see it working hard on their behalf-but only if they see it actually accomplishing what it sets out to do. “The sweet spot,” says Buell, “is where you are working hard, but also getting things done.” Even Thoreau would have to look kindly on government then.

Nice bit..

Though, this can work for governments that are actually working but people not getting it. In most cases, the governments hardly work so the answer to the eternal question remains as elusive as ever..

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