The New Interface of Governance

Frontier / by Nancy Scola /

If we can just tweak the way we make choices, we can make smarter ones. A look at Obama’s plans to put the science of human nature to work.

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The transparent nature of the digital world has potentially powerful public policy implications. Obama, for example, is pushing in Congress for greater credit card transparency, and Sunstein and Thaler see a day when our own personal MasterCard and Visa records get uploaded to a site that spits out a determination of whether our APRs, payment terms, and frequent-flier miles are a good match for our individual economic needs. The hope is that that direct, individualized feedback can prompt people to use their resources more wisely; that’s also the thinking behind Google’s PowerMeter project, which aims to display your home energy usage rate right on your Google home page. Another example: The state of California runs an online greenhouse gas registry that makes public just how much CO2 local businesses emit. The Environmental Protection Agency is planning on launching a nationwide version of the program. The agency’s proposal, while still in its rough-draft stages, doesn’t yet spell out the registry’s online component.

To understand how the online component of the EPA’s greenhouse gas registry will evolve, it’s necessary to take a brief tour through the Federal regulatory process and just how President Obama plans to overhaul it. Already in this young administration, using the web to add a dose of “public” to public policy has become standard operating procedure. Witness,,, to name just a few of the executive branch sites that have blossomed in Obama’s Washington. There are signs that the White House is planning to take this approach further, imprinting the way it does business on the rest of the sprawling executive branch.

There exists in the Federal Government a little-known office called the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. OIRA’s job is to make sure that as Federal agencies regulate their actions carry, as Congress has phrased it, “The President’s voice.” In a barely-noticed directive issued just after taking office, President Obama called for a rethinking of OIRA and the regulatory process to in part, “Clarify the role of behavioral science in formulating regulatory policies.” For the position of OIRA’s director, the president appointed Nudge’s Cass Sunstein himself—a strong sign that the Obama White House is eager to examine how “choice architecture” and gentle nudging could help Federal agencies and departments tackle their regulatory challenges. When the EPA’s greenhouse gas registry eventually rolls out, there’s a good chance that it will go beyond a simple website to be a carefully-crafted framework to use what we know about human nature to rein in greenhouse gases.

There’s no doubt a tendency to recoil a bit at the idea of the Federal Government shaping behavior through a pre-checked checkbox and a tempting user interface. It’s not pure paranoia. Says Yahoo’s Crumlish, “People coming to use an interface have an interest, but the ‘house’ has an interest as well.” Is the fact that “house” also happens to be the executive branch of the US Federal Government enough to provoke fears of Big Brother, and thus resistance to whatever the White House’s latest web project might be?
Not necessarily. “Get over the idea that you’re not pushing people one way or another,” Schwartz says he regularly tells decision makers.

If the general public understood that choice shaping is ubiquitous, Schwartz believes, they might get over their initial wariness at being nudged. Behaviorists like to use the example of the school cafeteria. Nudge-ers might recommend that fruit choices be placed before cookies and cakes on the dessert table. It’s not, they argue, like there’s a pre-ordained natural order according to which food choices should be placed before children. Throwing all the food up in the air to see where it lands isn’t a very sensible approach, so decisions have to be made. If everyone who designs anything—whether it’s a lunchroom or a new government home page—is architecting choice, the argument goes, that power might as well be used to advance rational, efficient, economic public policy.

Still, the behaviorists in President Obama’s inner circle likely anticipate a good amount of skepticism from the public. One recently launched executive branch project might be read as an attempt to allay some of those fears. exposes some of the dry details of Federal Government operations and the information it regularly collects. By making it easier for the public to find, download, and make use of government data sets, aims to “make government more transparent,” and create “an unprecedented level of openness.”

Of course, it’s a fair question whether one-click access to US Geological Survey spreadsheets showing the “locations and characteristics of world copper smelters” really amounts to pulling back the curtain on Big Brother. There’s a risk of going down a rabbit hole, trying to make sense of whether government transparency is a counterbalance to being nudged—or if it is itself “choice architecture.” In the end, whether the new politics of choice succeeds in bettering our lives may depend on letting go of the idea that we always have to be fully in-control of our choices. Perhaps the coming age of smarter, more efficient public policy has to start with personal admissions that as flesh-and-blood human beings, we’re not always smart, and we’re very often inefficient.

We live in a world awash with knowledge. “The challenge we have now is to shape how we navigate that information in meaningful ways,” says Swarthmore’s Schwartz. “The people who truly figure that out,” he predicts,” are going to be the ones to run the world.” Perhaps they already are.

Originally published June 2, 2009

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