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SPAA Center Uses Psychology and Experimentation in New Approach to Public Administration

What role does political affiliation play in shaping citizens’ judgments of performance information about the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare)? In what ways might public servants treat citizens differently based on biases associated with race, gender, or ethnicity?

These are the questions being answered by the Center for Experimental and Behavioral Public Administration (CEBPA), housed at the School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA). The center explores an emerging subfield known as behavioral public administration that favors a micro-level analysis of individual behavior and decision-making as it relates to public administration issues.

“It’s a behavioral approach toward public administration that uses psychological insights and experimental techniques to learn about the motivations and behaviors of actors within the public sector,” said Dr. Sebastian Jilke, assistant professor at SPAA.

Jilke is CEBPA’s co-director, along with Interim Dean Dr. Gregg Van Ryzin. The two are a part of a group of scholars advancing this new field of study. They established the center in 2016 to improve public administration research and the operations and services of public entities, with a particular focus on the greater Newark area. The center is supported by a $50,000 seed grant awarded by the Rutgers University-Newark Chancellor’s Office.

“In addition to supporting academic research, much of it published in the field’s top journals, the center’s goal is to work with local governments and nonprofit organizations to promote the application of behavioral insights and experimental methods in the design and delivery of vital public services,” explained Van Ryzin.

In an effort to foster the continuous spread and exchange of ideas, the center sponsors seminars and workshops, hosts visiting scholars, and maintains a public mailing list. The center also maintains two online research panels – one comprised of citizens (CivicPanel) and the other comprised of public and nonprofit managers (Public Service Research Panel) – who complete surveys on various topics as part of the center’s research.

Jilke explained that while CEBPA’s field of study is new, even the federal government has explored the benefits of experimentation by testing behavioral interventions known as “nudges.” In 2015, the federal government sought to address inaccuracies in self-reported spending figures from government vendors who would underreport spending to reduce fees they owed to the government.

“Behavioral insights and psychological research shows us that if you draw attention to the self, it increases people’s moral behavior,” said Jilke.

Using the hypothesis of drawing attention to the self, the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences Team tested the efficacy of moving the vendor signature box from the bottom of the reporting form to the top. They found that forms requiring signatures at the top were more accurate. Since relocating the signature box, the federal government collected an additional $1.6 million in fees within a single quarter.

Jilke’s example of the signature box illustrates the potential of experiments to create significant and practical benefits with relatively low cost interventions. For one of his experiments, Jilke is submitting information requests with racially coded names to various government agencies (in the United States and abroad) to test whether administrators treat requests differently based on assumptions of race and ethnicity. 

In further exploration of psychological behavior, Van Ryzin published an article, with CEBPA visiting fellow Oliver James (University of Exeter) that showed how political beliefs influence the processing of factual information about the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In Van Ryzin and James’s study, one group was primed to think politically when considering the ACA, while the other group was primed to think about their own health care needs. After priming, those who considered their own health care needs were much more likely to view evidence regarding the ACA from a non-partisan perspective. 

Jilke and Van Ryzin also co-edited (with James) Experiments in Public Management Research: Challenges and Contributions, a collection of publications by leading public management scholars who discuss the strengths of experimentation as a complement to traditional approaches in public management research. The book was published by Cambridge University Press and will be released at the end of June 2017.

“The advantages of experimentation are pretty straightforward because an experimental approach allows you to answer seemingly small, but very important questions in a robust manner,” Jilke said. “It’s a cost-effective way of evaluating policies at the local level and beyond.” Currently, CEBPA is partnering with the Government Finance Officers Association, with whom CEBPA is developing a large-scale, nudge-type intervention across multiple cities.

“Experimentation with random assignment to control and treat conditions is commonly used in the medical sciences, and has wider applications,” Jilke said. “It can be done in a laboratory, implemented within a survey, or within a field like ours, and we support all of these approaches.” 

For more information on CEBPA or to join an online research panel, visit the Center for Experimental and Behavioral Public Administration (CEBPA).