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Here Comes the White House's Behavioral 'Nudge Squad

"Anyone interested in working for the White House in a 'nudge' squad? The UK has one and it's been extraordinarily successful."

The U.S. government is looking to recruit members for what some are calling a "Behavioral Insights Team," a panel of experts that will study human behavior so as to “design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals,” according to a document describing the program.

“The federal government is currently creating a new team that will help build federal capacity to experiment with these approaches, and to scale behavioral interventions that have been rigorously evaluated, using, where possible, randomized controlled trials,” the document reads.

“The team will be staffed by 4-5 experts in behavioral science and experimental design and evaluation,” it adds. was the first to obtain and report on the White House's "Behavioral Insights Team" memo.

The document praises British Prime Minister David Cameron for implementing a similar “behavioral insights” team in the U.K., claiming the group has advanced the priorities of the British government while also saving it at least £1 billion within the next five years.

The document also shows the White House is already coordinating similar programs with federal agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.

“We are already working with over a dozen federal departments and agencies on newly-designed behavioral insights projects,” the document reads, “including the Department of Labor, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Veterans Administration, Department of Treasury, Social Security Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the United States Department of Agriculture.”

Maya Shankar, a White House senior adviser on social and behavioral sciences, emailed the document to a university professor requesting he distribute it to people interested in applying for the gig.

The document goes on to list the job responsibilities for the “central team”:

  • Build Capacity: Work with a broad range of federal agencies to identify new program areas that could benefit from the application of behavioral insights. Help to design, implement, and test the relevant interventions using rigorous experimental methods.
  • Enhance Capacity: Provide conceptual and technical support to agencies with specific behavioral insights efforts already underway.
  • Convene: Lead a multi-agency “community of practice” to identify and share promising practices and common challenges.
  • Create and Provide Resources: Generate tutorials and other “how to” documents to help accelerate these efforts within agencies. Manage online library of relevant documents and media.
  • Help inspire new ideas: Work with external partners to identify research findings that can inform policy and practice.

However, some are leery of the fed’s new initiative;

“Such policies -- which encourage behavior subtly rather than outright require it -- have come to be known as ‘nudges,’” notes.

The term comes from the 2008 book titled “Nudge” by Cass Sunstein and Chicago Booth School of Business professor Richard Thaler. Sunstein was the Obama administration's regulations czar and is married to Samantha Power, Obama's new pick for US ambassador to the UN.

Cass Sunstein, former Director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget. (AP)

And associating the fed’s new “behavior insight” initiative with the term "nudge" isn’t too far off.

Indeed, as one professor who received the “Behavioral Insights Team” email wrote in an email to his colleagues: "Anyone interested in working for the White House in a 'nudge' squad? The UK has one and it's been extraordinarily successful."

"I am very skeptical of a team promoting nudge policies," Utah State University professor Michael Thomas told

"Ultimately, nudging ... assumes a small group of people in government know better about choices than the individuals making them,” he added.

Of course, he continued, the government doesn’t always get it right.

Dan Cruz, spokesman for the U.S. General Services Administration weighed in on the issue:

As part of the Administration's ongoing efforts to promote efficiency and savings, GSA is considering adding some expertise from academia in the area of program efficiency and evaluation under its Performance Improvement Council.

Here’s the “Behavioral Insights Team” pitch:

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Featured image Getty Images. This post has been updated.



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