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In the impressively detailed memorandum on ‘scientific integrity’ that US President Joe Biden recently released, one provision could easily escape notice. It’s an explicit endorsement of behavioural science—and it calls for much more of it.

The provision requires the director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to produce “guidance to improve agencies’ evidence-building plans and annual evaluation plans." It invokes former President Barack Obama’s Executive Order 13707 of 2015, which has guided the use of behavioural science by government officials. Biden’s memorandum instructs the OMB director to build on that order and to work toward better practices.

As per the memorandum, those practices “might include use of pilot projects, randomized control trials, quantitative-survey research, and statistical analysis." In general, the goal is to build on “approaches that may be informed by the social and behavioural sciences and data science."

There’s a strong signal here. Obama’s agencies used behavioural sciences to produce creative solutions to policy problems. For example, the US Department of Agriculture did a great deal with its “direct certification" programme, which automatically enrols poor children in free school-lunch schemes. Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation adopted a new fuel economy label, informed by behavioural science, designed to help consumers make informed choices. The Food and Drug Administration created a new Nutrition Facts panel to make a healthy choice the easier one.

Under Donald Trump, some of that work continued. But the use of behavioural science to promote policy goals was much less frequent and much less systematic—and lacked White House leadership.

Biden’s memorandum is a powerful indicator that behavioural science has a real place in dealing with numerous problems—covid, most urgently, but also climate change, racial discrimination, poverty and others. Behavioural research offers a host of helpful lessons for dealing with the hesitancy many people have about getting the vaccine, for example. And in the coming months, it will be essential to identify approaches that will increase the likelihood that people will continue to take sensible precautions, like wearing masks.

But what, meanwhile, should the OMB director’s guidance say? Here’s one part of the answer, some low-hanging fruit: Eliminate paperwork burdens, red tape and wait times, collectively also known as ‘sludge’.

According to the most recent figures, the US imposes more than 11 billion hours in annual paperwork burdens on people. The Treasury Department, including the Internal Revenue Service, is responsible for eight billion of those hours. But the Department of Health and Human Services claims 1.3 billion. And the millions all add up: the Department of Transportation is responsible for 185 million; the Department of Labor 177 million; and the Social Security Administration 44 million, just for starters.

Mind you, these are the official numbers. The actual hours devoted to paperwork, as a result of government requirements, are undoubtedly a lot higher.

For many Americans, sludge operates as a wall that separates them from opportunities, training, education or employment. If, for example, you are trying to get financial assistance, licences or permits to which you are entitled, the paperwork needed might defeat you.

Behavioural science helps explain why. Many people procrastinate and inertia is a powerful force. If people need to stand in line or fill out complicated forms or wait on hold for two hours, they might simply give up. In many cases, the result is serious injustice. The principal victims of sludge often turn out to be poor, sick or female. People of colour and the elderly also tend to suffer disproportionate harm. Consider the challenge in terms of navigability of just scheduling covid vaccine appointments, a challenge that older people find especially difficult to meet.

The coming OMB guidance could suggest a number of solutions. Behavioural science has shown that if people are automatically enrolled in some programme—say, a 401(k) plan or green energy—participation rates tend to jump dramatically. Automatic enrolment can combat inequality. Clear reminders can have large and beneficial effects, because they trigger people’s attention. Simplification of programme requirements can also have large beneficial effects, especially for the most vulnerable members of society.

One of the many virtues of Biden’s order is that it licenses the Office of Management and Budget to put a bright spotlight on that fact.

Cass R. Sunstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and a co-author of ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness’

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