Podcast: Using Behavioral Nudges in Local Government with Alissa Fishbane & Aurélie Ouss

Posted on January 19, 2021


Behavioral Nudges - GovLove
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Alissa Fishbane
Managing Director
ideas42
Bio | Twitter
Dr. Aurélie Ouss
Assistant Professor of Criminology
University of Pennsylvania
Bio | Twitter

Reducing unnecessary warrants and jail time. Alissa Fishbane, Managing Director at ideas42, and Dr. Aurélie Ouss, Assistant Professor of Criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, joined the podcast to talk about their study to reduce the number of arrest warrants for failure to appear in court in the New York City criminal justice system. The guests highlighted the use of behavioral interventions, or nudges, that were low cost and easy to implement. They also shared how other local governments can apply behavioral science practices.

Host: Toney Thompson

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Episode Transcription

Message  00:00

This is Brian Murphy, ELGL’s Data Manager. The ELGL diversity dashboard is the first national data collection on the gender, race, and age of local government leadership. We’re excited to launch our third full year of data collection. This year, we’re expanding our collection to include all levels of local government positions, not just Chief Administrative officers, in an effort to get a better understanding of diversity across a wider variety of local government positions, this years survey is looking for responses from Local Government Leaders working in many different positions. We look forward to hearing from department heads, project managers, analysts and others as we hope to get data on the diversity of local government leadership. You can find more information on the survey and a link to respond at elgl.org/diversity-dashboard. We hope you’ll respond and follow the data as we work to make local government more diverse.

Toney Thompson  01:06

Coming to you from Durham, North Carolina, this is Gov Love, a podcast about local government. I’m Toney Thompson, your Gov Love co host for today’s episode. On today’s episode, we’ll talk to Alissa Fishbane & Aurélie Ouss about their working, their work in using behavioral nudges to reduce failure to appear in New York City’s criminal justice system. Alissa Fishbane is a managing director at ideas42, a nonprofit that uses insights from human behavior to help improve lives, build better systems, and drive social change. Her career has focused on bringing innovative, evidence based ideas into practice. She has designed, tested, and scaled impactful interventions across the areas of criminal justice, health, education, and financial well being. Currently she leads ideas42’s work to apply behavioral science to improve public safety and criminal justice outcomes. Aurélie Ouss is an assistant professor in the Department of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, trained as an economist, her research examines how good design of criminal justice institutions and policies to make law enforcement fair and more efficient. She has worked with policy makers in the criminal justice field, such as police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, or prison administrators across numerous cities in the US, including Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, Las Vegas, and in France. Her work has been published in journals such as Science Magazine, the Journal of Political Economy, the Journal of Public Economics, or the Journal of Legal Studies. Welcome to Gov Love. Thanks for joining us.

Alissa Fishbane  02:41

Thanks for having us, Toney.

Toney Thompson  02:45

So let’s get started with the lightning round to get to know both of you a bit better. So first question as a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Aurélie Ouss  02:54

So I wanted to be a philosopher. But you know, by the time I actually started to study of philosophy, I realized that at least how it was taught in France, which is where I’m from was a little bit too abstract for my tastes. And I wanted to do, you know, think about problems in a more concrete way. So I wanted to be more empirical minded and shifted roots down the way to become an economist.

Toney Thompson  03:20

Wow, that’s great. I, I can’t Yeah, I thought about being a philosopher growing up, but that seemed way too daunting for me, Aurélie Ouss. Alissa, How about yourself?

Alissa Fishbane  03:30

Well, in my early days, it was an architect and a microbiologist. But in college, I learned how mass marketing of products like infant formula, or sugar sweetened beverages, was actually harming the health of people all over the world. And so that inspired me to find a profession that would do exactly the opposite. How could I help to influence behavior for the good of humanity? And so eventually, I found my way to the science of human behavior and applying it to the real world. 

Toney Thompson  03:59

Wow, great. So I mean, given both of those backgrounds, I’m really fascinated to hear your answers for the next question. What are both of you currently reading? Let’s start with Alissa.

Alissa Fishbane  04:11

I’m in the middle of reading a fiction book right now called the Overstory. I love books that change how you view the world. And, you know, this really seems like one of those to me, it’s basically a collection of interlocking short stories. And the stories are ultimately stories about being human and our inherent connection and response to nature.

Toney Thompson  04:33

Wow, that’s, it’s very funny that you say that. My wife just read that book with her book club. So I think I need to pick it up, since you’ve mentioned it. Aurélie, how about yourself, what are you currently reading?

Aurélie Ouss  04:47

So I love reading. It’s the thing I do most in my free time. And usually I’m reading both fiction and nonfiction at the same time. And so that’s what I’m currently doing. So the nonfiction book that I’m reading is a book by a sociologist out of Stanford called Matthew Clair. It’s called Privileges and Punishments. And Matthew Claire spent a lot of time in the Boston court system, trying to understand how people interact with their defense attorneys. And it’s a really fascinating inside view of, you know, both how people feel about being involved in criminal justice through the angle of working with their, their interactions with public defenders. And then second, it adds the layer of how your experiences with criminal justice are really different depending on your race and your socio economic status. So I really recommend it. The fiction book I’m currently reading his Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar, an amazing book, I think it’s one of my favorite novels I’ve read in a really long time. And it goes through through the experience of being an American Muslim, you know, growing up in the in the 80s, all the way to going through 9/11, and then under the Trump presidency, so, you know, kind of a mix between fiction and nonfiction. Highly, highly recommend it as well. 

Toney Thompson  06:13

Oh, great. I’ll definitely put those on my reading list. So let’s get to talking about the work that you both did. So earlier this year, you are both published, along with your colleague, Anuj Shah in Science Magazine, about the work you did with New York City to reduce the number of people who failed to appear in court. Why was failure to appear such a problem for the city?

Aurélie Ouss  06:39

So this is a great question, and I’m going to answer it a little bit more generally than you asked it. So I think failure to appear in court is a big issue, not only in New York City, but in the United States more generally. So just to give you an example, about one in five people who have a court date scheduled for felonies do not show up to courts. And so you know, in the context that we were looking at New York City, the failure to appear rate was even higher, we were focusing on low level offenses. And in that situation, more than 40% of people were not showing up to their court dates. And that’s a problem for a couple of reasons. You know, first, the courts can’t work if people are not showing up to court. But also, you know, there are consequences for a person not showing up to court, their case will be processed, the current case and future cases will be processed differently if they fail to appear in court.

Toney Thompson  07:39

Wow. Um, so I actually want to do a kind of ask you really about more about the consequences that New York has for failure to appear. So what were the specific consequences for someone who have failed, failed to appear in court for New York?

Aurélie Ouss  07:54

So in our context, but this is true, more generally, the first consequence of not showing up to court is that an arrest warrant will be issued. And so what this means is that the next time you interact with the police, you know, one of the first thing that police officers do is run your name to see whether you were you had an open warrant. And even if you’re picked up for a small thing, they can arrest you because you have this open warrant. So that is the most direct consequence. And this is true in our context. But it’s also true more generally, beyond this direct effect, there are also collateral consequences of having, not showing up to court and having these open warrants. So I think, you know, starting with criminal justice, if you are arrested, again, for a more serious offense, and you face pretrial detention, in many places, judges are going to figure out whether you be, you should be in jail pretrial or not based on your risk of not showing up to court. And so, in this, you know, if you, the best predictor of you not showing up to court is if you did not show up to court in the past. So if you missed court, once a judge may think, Hey, you know, you’re really not a reliable person, I’m going to set a high level of bail for you too. And you may spend some time in jail pretrial, because I really want you to show up in court. So there are direct effects of having had having failed to appear in court in the past on how future court cases will be processed. But beyond that, there can also be consequences in either access to some, you know, social services. Some you know, if you are not a US citizen, this can have an impact on how your immigration case is dealt with. And some work in sociology has shown that people may be avoiding access to public services in order to avoid run ins with police.

Toney Thompson  09:57

Wow. And in a general context, do judges generally have that level of discretion, generally for determining pretrial detention?

Aurélie Ouss  10:06

Yeah, typically judges do have a lot of discretion. Again, like, you know, here, I’m gonna answer questions about New York, there are lots of differences across places and how criminal justice works, typically. So judges do have a lot of discretion. It varies across places. But generally speaking, they can choose both the bail amount that will determine whether you spend time in jail pretrial, and then more generally, the conditions of pretrial release, if that’s what they decide to determine for you.

Toney Thompson  10:37

I think one of the things that I found most fascinating about the research article that you published is that how the city’s policies for failure to appear were really rooted in an assumption that people were intentionally not showing up to their court summons. Can you tell us a little bit about what those policies were and why you want it to test a different assumption?

Alissa Fishbane  10:59

Yes. So in New York, if you’re charged with a violation, you are then at that moment issued a summons ticket. And you know, these can be for violations, such as having an open container of alcohol, being in the park after dark, many kind of other types of low level crimes. And so in these cases, you know, in most of these cases, people are required to go to court. But if the person does not go to court, the city then issues the warrant. And in terms of intentionality and going to court, you know, one thing we know from Behavioral Sciences is that in reality, life is really complicated. Often people intend to do things. But in the end, you know, they may struggle to follow through, you know, and this could be things like showing up to court or making a doctor’s appointment or following a diet. And to understand exactly what was happening in the context of going to court that was making it challenging for some people to attend despite intending to go, we actually spoke with summons recipients who had previously missed court. And there were a number of reasons we found some of the top ones were, you know, first, and this is likely because of the design of the actual summons form they’re given, some weren’t even aware that they were supposed to go to court in the first place. You know, another reason is many people just didn’t remember their court date. So we heard at least a few stories of people getting a ticket, immediately folding it, tucking it into their wallet for safekeeping. And then completely forgetting it was there. You know, for those who did remember their court date, some didn’t remember with enough time to plan ahead or make arrangements to go. And then others talked to us about what we as behavioral scientists called present bias. And this is essentially feeling the weight of the here and now even more greatly than any future consequence. And, you know, these are financial and psychological costs, that these defendants were feeling that were very high in the present moment. So things like, you know, how will I be made to feel at court? Some psychological fear about having to go. Will I have to pay a fine that day, you know, is there a possibility I could end up jailed? Or, you know, could I afford to take off work to go to court or pay for childcare? And so, you know, ultimately, the experience of going to court itself was overwhelming these larger consequences of the warrant, and leading people to fail to appear.

Toney Thompson  13:33

That’s really interesting. I wonder when you were doing your research, typically, what is the what is the typical time period between someone receiving a summons and when their actual court date is? I would imagine a city the size of New York, you’re not, you don’t have a court date the next week?

Alissa Fishbane  13:52

That’s a great question. And it does, as you say, vary depending on both, you know, location, and also, you know, the type of offense in New York for a summons level violation, there’s often a large gap, and it’s up to 12 weeks before your court date happens from the time you receive your summons ticket.

Toney Thompson  14:14

Wow. So you know, you know, almost waiting three months, plus all the things that you mentioned why people may be avoiding that court date. I mean, that’s a lot of time, it seems natural that maybe some people would forget about the data or fail to show up.

Alissa Fishbane  14:29

Absolutely. And that was a big part of how we decided to design our interventions and really respond to what we were seeing were the reasons people were failing to appear.

Toney Thompson  14:40

Yeah, so I think that’s a really good segue into my next question. Can you tell us a little bit about the behavioral interventions that you created to address the reasons why people were failing to appear in court?

Alissa Fishbane  14:54

We designed two interventions, both very low cost, very easy to implement. And as I mentioned earlier, you know, you remember if someone’s charged with a violation, they receive a form, a summons form. And in its original design, you know, this form was just not created with the recipient or the user in mind. And this is something we you know, very commonly see at ideas42, with many government forms and communications, forms are created to be functional for the administrators. But historically, no thought has been given to how much the design of forms or the presentation of information actually affects behavior. So when we analyzed, you know, putting on our own behavioral perspective, the original summons form, we noticed that the next steps weren’t clear, and they weren’t easy to find. So I’ll give you an example. You know, the court information on the summons form, which is really the only information that someone needs from this form is at the very, very bottom, it’s literally the last two lines of the ticket. And it’s often in handwriting, which is unclear. And so the consequences also of attended, of not attending court, you know, the issuance of an arrest warrant, this information was also not on the front of the ticket. Instead, it was on the back where most people don’t flip it over to read. And so we had a situation where there was a summons form that was accidentally making people’s lives more difficult, and actually exacerbating the very problem that New York City wanted to avoid. So with that in mind, we made two types of changes both you know, what we saw were simple, but needed changes to make it easier to understand and remember the court date. So first, we redesigned the summons form itself, we did things like moving the most important information about court dates to the very top instead of the bottom of the form. You know, we of course, added information emphasizing what would happen if the court date were missed. And then we made some other changes, like switching the title of the ticket from what was originally complaint slash information, which is quite ambiguous what needs to happen from that title, to a title of criminal court appearance ticket to really underscore what action was required from this ticket. The second thing we did to help people remember was we created text message reminders. And so you know, we talked about the large gap, up to 12 weeks in New York City, between getting the ticket and having to go to court. And so for those who did provide a phone number on the ticket, we sent three text messages starting one week before the court date. And we chose this timing, because most people in our interviews told us that they needed at least a few days to make arrangements to be able to appear in court. And we designed three different types of messages to test. And each of these corresponded directly to the reasons we talked about. And that we heard, where people were struggling to get to court. And so some people receive three messages that were centered around the consequences of not showing up. So what to expect if they do go to court, but also what to expect if they don’t. The second set of messages that some people received, addressed the issue of forgetting to go or planning ahead to go. And here we used a behavioral science technique that’s called plan making. And it’s something that helps people think about and arrange plans in advance. So it’s a technique that’s been shown to change behavior in a variety of ways, including going to vote or getting a flu shot. And then we did a third set of messages that was a combination of the first two, because we wanted to see if there could be an even larger boost in appearance at court, if we included both types of reminders. Now, these were the two designs that we implemented and tested. And I just wanted to note that, you know, while we anticipated that these changes would help more people to go to court and avoid a warrant. We also recognize that the problem of failure to appear, it’s you know, it’s an extremely complex problem. It requires deeper change. So I’ll give you an example. Summons are issued disproportionately in new york city neighborhoods, where incomes are the lowest and where there are higher proportions of black and Latino residents. And the interventions that we designed cannot fix issues like bias or resource constraints. That said, You know, I do want to explain, you know, that behavioral science and design can be useful in reforms that are both small and large. I think sometimes we wrongly see Behavioral Science as one of two extremes like either as a silver bullet On its own or as being, you know, too incremental. And I’d really like to encourage listeners to think about it completely differently. You know, rather, you know, think about good behavioral design as a key ingredient in a broader recipe to get things right. So for reforms to be most effective, whether they’re small or large, we need to get both the what right, and the how right. And behavioral science is about getting the how right.

Toney Thompson  20:30

Yeah, I think that’s, that’s really great context about, you know, how behavioral science can be a helpful tool for, for local governments. I, one question that I had Alissa, what as you were talking about, you know, the interventions that you worked on, I mean, how easy or how difficult was it to actually work with the City of New York to even test out these these new ideas? I know, oftentimes, in local government, it’s, we’re not always willing or keen to, to change our processes. Because to the point that you said about the summons form, you know, oftentimes, we design it for a functional administration in mind. And so changing it, you know, makes things a lot of very difficult on the back end.

Alissa Fishbane  21:17

We had three city partners in this project, the mayor’s office of criminal justice, the Office of court administration, and the New York police department. And the project actually started with the mayor’s office of criminal justice coming to us at a point when the summons form was being revised, there were a few additional fields that they were adding to the form. And, you know, having, knowing us and understanding behavioral science, they recognized it as an opportunity to be able to test whether, you know, redesigning this form could actually lead to an improvement in court appearance.

Toney Thompson  21:55

Gotcha. So it was really helpful that you had already had somewhat of a relationship with them, before they redesigned the form. So how, how did you go about testing the hypothesis of the two interventions that you just mentioned? And what were the results of of that testing?

Aurélie Ouss  22:14

So as Alissa mentioned, we were lucky from the start to be working with great policy partners in New York, who gave us the resources that we needed to actually figure out whether these interventions were working. So we, you know, as social scientists wanted to make sure that these interventions, were actually going to help people show up to court more. And we use different approaches to evaluate each of these strategies. So let me start with a text message intervention, whose evaluation is kind of, you know, the most standard thing you would want to do if you want to test an intervention. So we used what is called a randomized control trial, or sometimes people call it A/B testing, where basically, people who provided a phone number were randomized into different possible text message, into different possible treatment arms. So some people did not receive any text messages. And some people received the text messages that Alissa described, those focusing on the consequences of not showing up to court, those helping people make plans to show up to court and the hybrid messages. And so we can be sure, because it’s a flip of the corn that determines who, whether people were going to get any message and what kind of message they were going to get, we can be sure that any differences in court appearances are caused by the text messages themselves, and not by say, the fact that the kinds of people who choose to opt in to receiving text message may differ from those who do not opt into this. And so for this first intervention, we find that reducing a text message, reducing any text message reduces failures to appear by 21%. We also find that the content of the messages work, so the content of the message, of the messages matter. So the messages that were most effective are the messages that mentioned the arrest warrants. So that mentioned the consequences of not showing up to court. So you know, I think overall, like a takeaway from the, this first study is that sending text messages is helpful. But also being thoughtful about the contents can help get even more, even better results. For the form redesign, we use the different approach. Again, here we were working with the New York Police Department, and running a randomized control trial with police officers is difficult because we don’t want to you know, add, burdens to the work that they’re already doing. So here we couldn’t randomize what kind of form they were using this would have been too complicated logistically. So instead, what we did is that we were able to determine whether a police officer was using an old form or a new form. And based on the serial number of that form, and police officers just had one pad of papers, either a pad of old forms or a pad of new forms. And so we were able to determine for each police officer, what is the date that they started using the new forms, and we compare failures to appear of people of civilians who happen to be issued a summons, who are among the last people to receive the old forms for a given police officer, versus among the first people to receive a new form from that same police officer. And we compare failures to appear for people who are among the last to get the old form or the first to get the new form. And here, again, we find that people who got the new form had a lower failure to appear rate. And just to give you an idea of the of the magnitude, we find that combined, both of these interventions, the form redesign and the text messages, led to avoiding 30,000 arrest warrants being issued, and saving over $600,000, mainly in court costs.

Toney Thompson  26:28

Wow, that’s, that’s amazing. So just from those two, you know, fairly simple interventions, you you saved a lot of people, not only a lot of, the city a lot of money, but a lot of headache for people who would have had to potentially have gone through the pretrial detention process as well.

Aurélie Ouss  26:46

So just to clarify one point, I mentioned pretrial detention, because I think this is an area that has gotten a lot of policy attention. About one in five people who are behind bars in the United States have not had their trial yet. I do want to say that in the context that we were looking at, which is summonsable offenses, so very low level quality of life offenses. You can’t go to jail pretrial, for that. So I just wanted to clarify that. I think you know, that this could I would be really interested in seeing whether our results replicates in other settings, and whether we could see if judges could be convinced that a more effective policy for people to show up to court is sending them text messages, instead of having them sit in jail pretrial or setting high levels of cash bail to act as a collateral. But I do want to say that our study did not directly speak to the question of pretrial detention.

Toney Thompson  27:42

Gotcha. Thank you for that clarification. So we kind of talked about this a little bit earlier around, you know, mental models and people making the assumption that people are intentionally not showing up to court. So you also test it that that mental model around criminal justice, why did you feel like this was important to do as a part of a part of your your experiment? And what did the results reveal?

Aurélie Ouss  28:06

So I think what was puzzling to us is to contrast these very big effects of sending text messages in particular on court attendance, and how rare they are in in the criminal justice. So I mentioned that the two ways that we have currently for people to show up to court for more serious crimes are either pretrial detention, which A is costly, and B is extremely disruptive for people’s lives and costly to them themselves, and B, the use of cash bail, right? You know, cash bail is used as a financial incentive for people to show up to court. However, helping people remember to show up to court is not a policy tool that is typically used in criminal justice. I don’t want to say that it’s like completely frequent in other, in other policy domains as well. But for example, I mean, I get text messages from my dentist all the time. So there are some fields where we recognize that people may just be forgetting to show up to appointments. And so one question that we had is, why aren’t these kinds of interventions that address these behavioral barriers to attendance to compliance, not more frequent in the criminal justice setting? So to study that we were interested in figuring out what the general population thought were reasons for people not to show up to court compared to other things that people don’t do on a regular basis. So say not paying a credit card bill, or not going to a doctor’s appointment, these kinds of things. So in order to study that, we conducted we conducted a survey online, and we gave people vignettes of people, not showing up to a doctor’s appointment, not paying their credit card bill. We contrasted that to vignettes of people not showing up to their court appointments. And we asked them a series of questions, A whether they thought that these behaviors were intentional or not, and B, whether they supported what we’re calling nudges, such as sending text, text message reminders for people to comply. So we asked them, you know, if a person didn’t show up to their doctor’s appointment, do you think they did it on purpose or not? Same thing for court appearances? And then ask them, how supportive are you of penalties versus nudges for people to comply? And what we find is that the general population is more likely to attribute failures in the criminal justice setting to intentional behaviors. So you didn’t show up to court on purpose, compared to not showing up to a doctor’s appointments. A second finding is that when we encourage people to think to like, imagine a reason why a person may have not shown up to court out of mistake, you know, because they forgot, because they, you know, may have had a conflict for childcare or something like that, people were more likely to support nudges. So this research is a little bit optimistic as well, that people’s mental models about reasons for not showing up to court can be changed by just encouraging people to think about reasons why people may have mistakenly not shown showing up to court. And once you’ve encouraged, importantly, once you encourage people to consider these mistakes, then they’re more likely to support things that would that would address these mistakes, such as reminders. I do want to note that we also ran this study among professionals in the criminal justice system. So prosecutors, attorneys, judges, and they seem to be more attuned to this idea that people are sometimes failing in the criminal justice setting out of mistakes. So for example, they weren’t, they were not as likely to say that, you know, they were more likely to support these kinds of nudges, and they were less, they were more likely to think that inattention could be driving these behaviors. So that’s interesting to see, you know, when we put all of this together, it appears if we look at our current criminal justice policies, they are more in line with what the general population thinks, relative to what criminal justice professionals think. So I think like in terms of getting wider adoption of these kinds of policies, perhaps one of the barriers isn’t the cost of the intervention, isn’t that it’s complicated to do, but that people don’t spontaneously think that hey, in the criminal justice setting, you may also just be forgetting and it, you may not be failing on purpose.

Toney Thompson  32:54

So you also, I mean, that’s really interesting. I think it’s really fascinating. And maybe that’s another conversation for another time, why we have different mental models around criminal justice, then then other things that we that we do in our lives, but I really want to touch on another piece of the work that you did around how your interventions potentially impact people of color, and lower income individuals. And you’ve already kind of touched on this, but I just want to kind of expound upon what did you discover? And what are some broader implications of the results around how these interventions are impacting people of color and lower income individuals?

Aurélie Ouss  33:32

For sure. That’s a great question. And just to start by talking about a limitation of our study, we do not have information about whether, about the race or the income level of people in our study. So instead, what we do is that we look at the racial and ethnic composition, and the economic composition of people in the census tract in which people lived. So what we do is that we then compare the effectiveness of the different interventions, depending on the fraction of people who are under poverty, and the fraction of people who are black or Hispanic. And we find suggestive evidence that lower income individuals benefit more from the text messages. So they were more likely to show up to court, when they received a text message. That effect was bigger for people who lived in lower income neighborhoods. And this is in line with some work that our co author Anuj Shah has done on the concept of scarcity. And this idea is that you know, when you have less money, then you are more taxed and you don’t have as much bandwidth to address other things that are going on in your life. And so if you’re worried about putting food on the table for your family, you may be especially likely to forget about your court date. So, However, we do not find any difference in the effectiveness of these interventions by race and ethnicity. And in fact, we found that people who lived in higher black or Hispanic communities are less likely to enroll in the text message intervention. We can’t tell whether this is because people in these neighborhoods are more skeptical of the police, and so less likely to provide them their phone numbers. Or if policing is different, and police officers were less likely to ask people to give their phone numbers in the first place. So we can’t really distinguish this but did not find any difference across racial or ethnic groups in terms of the effectiveness of this intervention. And as Alissa was mentioning earlier, one big difference that we see is that summonses are much more frequent in higher poverty, and higher black and Hispanic neighborhoods. And so I do want to be upfront that not just, won’t be able to fix these structural problems of disparities at this level. They can help people show up to court, but it won’t help fix these bigger problems that we have in the disparate impact that law enforcement may be having. I do want to echo though something that Alissa said earlier, which is this idea that, you know, we kind of have this, these expectations that can skew in either direction, either nudges will fix everything, or nudges are useless because they’re, you know, too incremental. I think that it’s helpful to just keep in mind that they’re, the answer is probably somewhere in between, then they can help with some things and our studies shows that simply reminding people about their forthcoming court dates, can be really effective to help them show up and not accrue all of these problems that come with having an open arrest warrants. But they won’t be able to help with the structural, more structural issues that we just talked about.

Toney Thompson  37:14

Yeah, that’s, thank you for for saying that. I think that’s that’s really interesting, and really fascinating that you found that the text messages were more helpful for for was more effective for lower income individuals, but you didn’t see any differences by race. And, and I think there’s probably something else there, another study there to, to figure out why higher minority communities were less likely to, to sign up for that for the text messages.

Aurélie Ouss  37:39

I completely agree. Yeah, and I think also like our study about why the general population has different views on the, on who you should support, we weren’t able to, you know, with nudges, we weren’t able to tease out two possible explanations, either they think that not showing up to court is fundamentally different. Or when they imagine the kinds of people who are not showing up to court, we can’t tell whether they’re just less likely to want to help the kinds of individuals they imagine not showing up to court. And I’m sure this will overlap with questions of racial disparities in criminal justice impacts.

Toney Thompson  38:21

Absolutely, absolutely. So I think one of the things that first drew me, to your, to your paper was, I think, at a at a higher level, the work that you did is about how people, how citizens, interact with local government, and in many ways how local governments try to influence the behavior of people who interact with that local government, and what and what do local governments do when people don’t behave in the ways that we intend for them? And so what are some key lessons from your work that you want local governments to walk away with, when citizens aren’t behaving in the way that we always intend for them, intend for them to do and is punishment or some form of punishment or punitive behavior or punitive incentive the way to go?

Alissa Fishbane  39:14

I’ll share a couple of thoughts here. To change behavior, you know, first, we need to be willing to change our current practices. One of the most common biases we have as humans is our resistance to change. And sometimes we hear a reluctance to fix something because, well, that’s the way it’s always been done. And, you know, in reality, the world is constantly changing. And, you know, we need to move beyond the status quo mindset and really embrace change to improve these interactions and to improve behavior. Second, I’d like to really encourage folks to check their assumptions about the cause of both the problem and the solution itself. Often we bring assumptions as to why something isn’t working, why someone isn’t doing something that we think they should be doing. Yet, you know, the challenge is, our initial assumptions are almost always wrong. We’re wrong both about what’s causing the problem. So in this case, we’ve been talking today about intentionality and failure to appear in court, but also about how to solve for that problem. So one assumption with the solutions we often hear is, you know, well, we can just improve behavior simply by giving people more information. You know, an education campaign is what we need to fix this. But think about all these behaviors we know a lot about yet still struggle with, you know, things like sticking to a healthy diet, exercising regularly, regularly, getting enough sleep, you know, these are failures of knowledge, you know, other things are getting in the way. So, instead of asking, you know, what other information can I provide, we should be asking, What can I be doing to make things easier? You know, what could it be that’s preventing this person from being able to do what we want them to do? Could I make something easier to act on, easier to remember, easier to understand? You know, another technique that is very helpful is to map the journey of the user. So what are all the steps that they’ll have to go through, you know, the forms, the office visits, phone calls, you know, any other requirements to successfully complete a process? So, you know, where might this process be tough for you? And where might this process be tough for someone who, you know, for example, doesn’t have flexible work hours, or has limited access to transport? I think just asking these questions, and being really curious about how to make improvements is a huge first step. And, of course, you know, for those who are interested in the particulars of how to apply behavioral science, there are other options, you know, of course, we welcome you to reach out to us. And we also have an ideas42 Academy with online coursework.

Toney Thompson  42:07

I think, thank you for saying that, I would definitely check out ideas42 Academy. And it leads me to my next question, you know, what advice would you give local governments who want to replicate the work that you did, or simply use the best practices from what you learned, using behavioral nudges? I mean, I think, you know, both of you probably understand that not everyone has your background or expertise and, and sometimes that can be daunting for local governments to even begin to think about doing this work if they don’t feel like they have the resources or support to do some of these things.

Alissa Fishbane  42:43

I’ll answer both of your questions, we’ll start first, you know, for how to more largely apply best practices. You know, obviously, I’ll highly encourage everyone to apply it in their work. And, you know, what’s exciting is we’ve seen progress working with local governments. And you know, in some cities like New York and Chicago, we’ve had teams embedded directly in the mayor’s office, and are able to work across a real wide range of areas. And we’ve seen impacts in areas like increasing diversity and hiring for public jobs, renewal rates for benefits, you know, using health services, paying parking tickets, persisting at local community colleges. And, you know, one way to do this is obviously to partner with an organization or an academic with expertise. And you know, that can be really helpful. And I and I definitely encourage folks to do that. But there’s also some things that can be done immediately that are accessible. For example, you know, we have a behavioral evidence hub that we helped launch with a number of other organizations. And it’s essentially a set of checklists and resources for applying behavioral science in many areas. So you can navigate to the website, it’s bhub.org, behavioral evidence hub, and find these tools that can be immediately applied to whatever it is you’re working on. And you know, start to make a difference there. We also have a paper called Poverty Interrupted on our website, and you know, Aurélie talked earlier about the impacts of financial scarcity. This paper really beautifully outlines some specific strategies that governments can take to adapt their programs and services to better serve those experiencing financial scarcity. Now, in terms of replicating our work, we’ve made our summons work, so both the changes to the form before and after, as well as all of the text messages sent completely open source. And you can find full versions of each of these interventions online in our policy report. so this report can be found either at the ideas42 website or at our partners website, the University of Chicago Crime Lab. And you know, what’s exciting is, since we’ve published this, we’ve heard from jurisdictions from all over the country who are interested in adopting them. And so, you know, one thing I’m currently working on is trying to launch an initiative dedicated specifically to helping local governments adapt these interventions to their local context. So if you’re interested in working with us, we would absolutely love to hear from you. If you’re interested in supporting this type of work, we’d also love to hear from you. And you can reach out directly or at [email protected] if you’re interested.

Toney Thompson  45:46

Yeah, thank you for providing that. And I guess this kind of leads to my next question. And maybe this question is more for Aurélie, but if people want to follow your work, where can they go to continue to do that?

Aurélie Ouss  45:57

So I’m on Twitter @Aurélieouss. And I have a website as well. And that is linked on my Twitter profile.

Toney Thompson  46:07

Excellent. Yeah, I’ll definitely be sure to follow that. And so this is the last question I have for both of you. It’s the question we ask a lot of our guests. If you could be the Gov Love DJ for a day, what song would you pick as your exit music for this episode?

Alissa Fishbane  46:23

We’re gonna go with Ben Harper’s With My Own Two Hands.

Toney Thompson  46:28

Excellent. I really like that. That’s great. So that’s the conclusion of our episode. That ends our episode for today. Thanks for coming on and talking with me. For our listeners, you can reach us at ELGL.org/GovLove or on Twitter, @GovLovePodcast. And we’re on all of your favorite podcast subscription services. Please subscribe to Gov love through your favorite podcast service. And leave us a review so more people know that Gov Love is the podcast for local government topics. And if you have a story for Gov Love, we want to hear it. Send us a message on Twitter @GovLovePodcast. Thanks for listening. This has been Gov Love, a podcast about local government.


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