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Behavioral Insights Deliver Real Impact in the City of New York

March 20, 2018

March 20, 2018
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Behavioral Insights Deliver Real Impact in the City of New York

Team announces initial successes and new round of funding

NEW YORK, March 19, 2018—The City of New York and nonprofit behavioral design lab ideas42 unveiled promising results from the New York Behavioral Design Team (BDT). The project, managed by the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity, located within the Mayor’s Office of Operations, helped improve processes and outcomes across the City—in policy areas as diverse as higher education, SNAP benefits, and flood insurance—to ultimately help residents find and access the services they need.

Following the success of the BDT, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation provided a new round of funding to extend the team’s work by an additional two years. The BDT unites some of the most innovative thinkers in City government with experts in behavioral science and evidence-based governance to tackle challenges New Yorkers face.

Since its inception in January 2016, the BDT has worked with more than a dozen City agencies on many problems across a range of policy areas. Made up of experts in behavioral design from ideas42, the team has focused on supporting City efforts to tackle problems in government efficiency, cost savings, energy and the environment, education, health, economic mobility, and equity.

For each project, the BDT and a partner agency conduct a specific test of a behaviorally informed intervention—such as a streamlined application process or a new communication strategy— and results are compared with existing practice. Most of these tests are conducted through a randomized control trial (RCT), comparing a randomly selected treatment group, which receives the intervention, with a randomly selected control group that does not, ensuring any improvement can be attributed to the BDT intervention. Agencies can then adopt the behavioral tactic as a change to standard practice, or incorporate it into other ongoing initiatives.

For example, the FDNY has invested in a multi-year, multi-pronged effort to increase the diversity of its ranks. As part of this initiative, the BDT worked with FDNY to conduct an RCT to assess whether waiving filing fees for applicants might increase the diversity of applicants taking the qualifying examination. For a randomly selected, diverse subset of applicants, some had fees waived, while others did not. Results among this subset showed that waiving the fees increased filing rates for FDNY’s new recruit applications by 36.7% overall, with an 84% increase among black candidates and 83% increase among female candidates.

Other work conducted by the BDT and City agencies using inexpensive, scalable interventions include:

  • A project involving 20,000 clients led to an increase in timely form submission to recertify for SNAP. The intervention reduced the rate of failure to submit a required form by 5.5% and led to an increase in form submission during the first 45 days of the recertification period, which is desirable, by 12.9%.
  • A program to increase FAFSA filing rates was successful at three CUNY campuses: Borough of Manhattan Community College (38.18%), Bronx Community College (19.79%), and Hostos Community College (28.06%). Based on these impressive results, CUNY is scaling this intervention to the majority of its two-year community colleges in the city.
  • A project with the Office of Recovery and Resiliency to encourage survey responses for flood insurance led to a 4.52 percentage point increase.
  • An initiative with the Office of Labor Relations led to a 10% increase flu vaccine uptake among City employees.
  • A project involving redesigning communications to parents about test registration for the Gifted & Talented program led to an increase in test registration by 6.5%.
  • A program to help over 5,000 CUNY freshmen overcome psychological barriers to academic success increased persistence in the following semester by 3%.

Based on these results, City agencies are adopting new behaviorally informed practices to extend their impact beyond those involved in the demonstration projects.

Behavioral science shows that small differences in the design or context of processes, programs, and services can influence how people make decisions and take action—or don’t. A growing body of evidence substantiates that behavioral science applications, which are often quick and inexpensive to implement, can improve the effectiveness of programs and policies. This makes it a good approach to deliver measurable impact under fiscal and policy constraints across a variety of City programs and policies.

“Our first two years proved the concept of an embedded City BDT with cost-effective solutions to difficult policy problems,” said Matthew Klein, Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity. “Our next phase, set to run through the end of 2019, will be focused on institutionalizing behavioral design, data usage, and rigorous evaluation across City agencies and scaling proven interventions from the first phase.”

“New York is a leader in exploring these types of innovations, and having embraced applying insights from behavioral science to improve a whole range of programs,” said Anthony Barrows, Managing Director at ideas42. “We’re honored to have the opportunity to tackle more ambitious problems and work on scaling our proven solutions together.”

The City’s work in this field, generously supported by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, is part of a larger strategic investment the City of New York has made in using behavioral insights to improve the lives of New Yorkers. ideas42 and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, in partnership with Crime Lab at the University of Chicago, recently reduced Failure to Appear rates for Summons recipients by 36% using a redesigned summons form and text-based reminders.

For more information about the New York Behavioral Design Team, visit

Read StateScoop's story about New York City Extending the Behavioral Design Program for Two Years. 

About the Mayor's Office for Economic Opportunity
The Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity) uses evidence and innovation to reduce poverty and increase equity. It advances research, data and design in the City’s program and policy development, service delivery, and budget decisions. NYC Opportunity’s work includes analyzing existing anti-poverty approaches, developing new interventions, facilitating the sharing of data across City agencies, and rigorously assessing the impact of key initiatives. NYC Opportunity manages a discrete fund and works collaboratively with City agencies to design, test and oversee new programs and digital products. It also produces research and analysis of poverty and social conditions, including its influential annual Poverty Measure, which provides a more accurate and comprehensive picture of poverty in New York City than the federal rate.

About ideas42
We have a clear mission—to use our unique experience as a nonprofit at the forefront of behavioral science to change millions of lives. We create innovative solutions to tough problems in economic mobility, health, education, consumer finance, energy efficiency, criminal justice and international development. Our approach is based on a deep understanding of human behavior and why people make the decisions they do. Working closely with our partners from governments, foundations, NGOs and companies, we have more than 80 active projects in the United States and around the world. Visit our website at or follow us on Twitter @ideas42 for more.

For ideas42 press inquiries, contact Mitra Salasel at