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City turns to science to bolster some flagging programs

The meetings started at the same time every month - 1 p.m. - but without fail, members of the Latino Advisory Committee for the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging would show up 15, 20, even 30 minutes late.

Clockwise from front left: Anjali Chainani, Nandi O'Connor and Daniel Hopkins.
Clockwise from front left: Anjali Chainani, Nandi O'Connor and Daniel Hopkins.Read moreED HILLE / Staff Photographer

The meetings started at the same time every month - 1 p.m. - but without fail, members of the Latino Advisory Committee for the Philadelphia Corp. for Aging would show up 15, 20, even 30 minutes late.

Pedro Rodriguez, the committee chair, was reading a book on behavioral science at the time. It suggested setting meetings at odd times to increase punctuality.

He scheduled the next meeting for 1:13 p.m.

"Ninety-five percent of people were there before 1 p.m.," Rodriguez said, "I said, 'Oh, my God, this actually works.' "

Rodriguez, now Philadelphia's director of human resources, is one of several city administrators working with behavioral scientists to use what is known about human behavior to improve how the city reaches residents.

Specifically, the city wants to increase participation in three programs - a city employee wellness plan, Indego bike-sharing, and a water rebate program.

"There's increasing research that if we treat people as they are - not perfect all the time, not able to read every single piece of information - you can help them make better decisions," said Syon Bhanot, a behavioral scientist at Swarthmore College, who is among three local scientists who have volunteered their time to work with the city.

Use of behavioral science to improve governmental communication has taken root in the United Kingdom, France, Singapore, Ireland, and Israel. The White House in 2014 created a social and behavioral sciences team to get more Americans enrolled in federal programs.

Philadelphia started working with behavioral scientists in 2013.

Since then, the Revenue Department has tripled the number of people who applied for a senior citizen water tax credit after conducting a simple experiment.

The department provided information on how to apply for the credit via postcards, large envelopes, and phone calls.

The large envelopes had the highest response rate, apparently because they stood out in the mail pile. Boosting the type size also helped.

"Some of the findings were obvious," said Deputy Revenue Commissioner Marisa Waxman, referring to larger type for seniors.

Dan Hopkins, a behavioral scientist with the University of Pennsylvania, also is working with the city.

He offered this advice: Keep it simple.

"Governments oftentimes communicate with a lot of legalese," he said, "which obscures the core point they're trying to make."

Hopkins said "framing things in terms of missed opportunities" can be highly effective.

"Here's what it would cost you to miss out," he said, offering an example. "Here's what you'd be leaving on the table." Envy, too, can be exploited, Hopkins said.

If a person learns they're missing out on a benefit their colleagues have taken advantage of, they're more likely to get on board.

The "keeping up with the Joneses" strategy can backfire, though.

Rodriguez pointed to an experiment in California where energy conservationists sent out notices informing people how their energy use stacked up against their neighbors'. As a result, those conserving the most started using more energy.

"People said, well why should I conserve if no one else is," Rodriguez said.

The city's bike-share program is hoping it can get a boost with a little science.

It had a booming launch in 2015 and is on track to hit one million rides by next month. But memberships lag in some neighborhoods and, on the whole, the blue bike stations seem to be viewed as more a tourist activity than a local mode of transportation, according to Aaron Ritz, bicycle and pedestrian programs planner at the Mayor's Office of Transportation.

"Our goal is to make it a broadly Philadelphia program, not something seen as tourist amenity or something for someone else," Ritz said. "Something used in neighborhoods to get to work, to get to errands."

To broaden its reach, the program sent coupons to 1,000 people who lived near underutilized stations.

"We got a total number of zero hits," Ritz said.

Now Ritz is meeting with researchers to discuss options such as staffing docking stations to provide sign-up assistance. He also wants to correct misconceptions about biking.

In a recent focus group, participants estimated it took about an hour to bike across the city. Ritz said bike-share riders report it is more like 20 minutes.

"You can't force somebody to ride bicycles or to do anything, but you can make it seem like a really compelling option," he said.

The Water Department is expanding an assistance program offered to low-income residents.

"There's a large customer base not getting assistance right now. We anticipate it to be a bit of a struggle," said Joanne Dahme, general manager for public affairs at the department.

On paper, it's a great deal. A typical water bill is around $65 a month and with the new program the minimum bill can be as low as $12 a month, Dahme said.

But getting people to take advantage can be tricky, and the city's previous system flew in the face of most behavioral science, requiring customers to call a hotline and send in applications, or go to city offices to complete one.

"One thing we know," Dahme said, "is, we need to do more to meet people where they are."