Bringing behavioral science to the White House

Bringing behavioral science to the White House
The idea of using behavioral science to help government agencies more effectively serve their constituents sounds great. But how do you build a high-impact, science-based organization within the government when you have no budget and no formal authority?

Dr. Maya Shankar founded the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team (SBST) which has successfully used behavioral science to design more effective and efficient policies and programs across the federal government. But just two years ago, the “team” was a one-woman show with no budget and no mandate to run research pilots.

Shankar spoke at the re:Work 2016 event about the four lessons she learned building a startup in the White House:

  1. Convert interest into impact - “Our job has been to convince our federal agency partners to prioritize working with us in the face of so many competing demands. And this is especially challenging when you're building out a new initiative, and there are no obvious or existing deadlines or milestones that people can work towards or mobilize around. So we've learned to create them.”
  2. Quantify your wins - “Rigorous results give you a strong case for scaling what's working and improving what isn't.”
  3. Celebrate small wins - “If you start small and you build credibility along the way, chances are you're going to work your way to being able to do higher impact projects.”
  4. Generate buy-in - We make a “big upfront investment in bringing [our agency colleagues] up to speed on behavioral concepts, or sharing success stories of how these insights have been applied to other government context and have been successful. We also like to develop proposals that align with the existing problems our agency colleagues are trying to solve so that incentives are aligned and all people have stakes in the final outcome.”

The SBST now has 20 behavioral scientists and has the backing of a Presidential Executive Order, and has implemented over 50 projects with government agencies. “Because of the team's work,” Shankar said, “more service members are saving for retirement, low low-income students are going to college, more farmers are able to start small businesses, and more veterans are accessing the benefits they've earned through their years of service.”