In a recent Sunday New York Times, a columnist discussed the benefits to governments from taking more advice/input from social scientists and behavior researchers when developing policies.
Columnist Richard H. Thaler described a process in Great Britain where the government used a small office of social scientists to look at ways to get more public participation or to make other policies more effective. The column noted that by crafting better overdue notices on tax bills, the government collected a record amount of unpaid taxes––in fact more than enough to cover the entire budget of the office.
What the columnist found was that if the government would apply two standards to every program, policy or office, they would increase effectiveness. These two criteria are so startlingly obvious they shouldn’t have to be stated. But they are shockingly missing from government program promotion, ranging from local recycling to the federal healthcare plan.
The two key ingredients:
• “If you want to encourage some activity, make it easy.”
• “You can’t make evidence-based policy decisions without evidence.”
Whether promoting recycling or the paying of your taxes, government does a fair job but could go further in making things convenient for users. For example, the new recreation center and old swimming pool at Roper Park aren’t easy to use, because the hours these facilities are open may not jibe with times families are looking for recreation. Nor is there any organized system to highlight programs and amenities the county offers at the park. If it wants more people frequenting Roper Park (and hopefully supporting programs there with user fees) local government needs to re-think its approach from the user’s point of view.
The state and county have made a big campaign to encourage recycling. But, at least in Pickens, it is not particularly easy for homeowners to participate. There is no government -provided curbside pick-up of recyclables, and you find few recycling bins in public spaces. The county has emphasized the savings available to families through recycling, as the practice reduces the volume of garbage families generate and by that decreases their dumping fees. But maybe the county still needs to look at how recycling could be made easier for the user.
On the federal level, could our nation have created a more complicated income tax system? In Britain it was found that by making tax forms simple and easy the government gained a higher percentage of people correctly and honestly paying their yearly taxes. It hurts to write that check every April. The least the IRS might do is make the chore a tad more straight-forward. Maybe even here we might see an increase in honest filers with and uptick in revenue to boot.
As to evidence-based policy, history is filled with examples where some government body went off half-cocked, even half informed, and created a full-scale mess.
The problem is surely not that the speed of government allows no time for research. With red tape, projects like the Tate Depot and widening of Highway 53 through Jasper have languished a long time already. Moving without thinking stems from misguided approaches where objectives are identified first, and evidence to support the plan is created later. In this line, the invasion of Iraq proceeded while a contradictory assessment concerning the ease of the operation and the support that could be expected from Iraqis was ignored.
Locally, we have the courthouse renovation. The recommendation that a location besides Main Street be considered was put forward by a courthouse committee but ignored. It may not have been a better choice, but it never appeared to get serious consideration.
Looking ahead, we urge all elected officials, both new and returning, to keep these two standards (make it easy and don’t proceed until you have considered all the facts) in mind whenever plotting a future direction.