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The City of Portland, Oregon

City Budget Office

Behavioral Insights and Testing Impact

Through What Works Cities, the City of Portland has partnered with the Behavioral Insights Team to apply behavioral science research findings to improve city communications and programs, and test what works using randomized controlled trials.

Behavioral insights (i.e. behavioral economics, or “nudging”) draws on knowledge from the behavioral sciences (psychology, neuroscience) about how people think, behave and make decisions under different conditions. Governments around the world have shown that when we design for people’s busy lives, and use proven methods of encouraging behavior – beyond financial incentives and penalties – we can increase participation, effectiveness and efficiency of government services.

Testing what works using randomized controlled trials – the gold standard of evaluation – allows City staff to pilot multiple approaches at once and find out which works best and for whom. Rigorous, real-time testing provides staff with data and evidence to make informed decisions about how to deliver the most effective programs and communications.

What we’ve done so far

Between 2016 and 2018, Portland completed over 10 projects with support from the Behavioral Insights Team. These projects were done in partnership with 6 different bureaus and ranged from encouraging bike share use and emergency preparedness to increasing code compliance reducing 911 call-taker burnout.

Portland staff have since designed their own projects, tested with randomized controlled trials, including efforts to improve on-time tax payments, increase transit ridership and biking, and reduce the frequency of false alarms among home and business security systems.

In 2020, Portland is partnering with the Behavioral Insights Team to improve COVID-19 messaging and to increase the wellbeing of city staff who have shifted to remote working.