On February 13, 2019, David Yokum presented his talk, “Behavioral Science and Public Policy: Mapping the Next Five Years,” as part of the Center for Decision Research’s Think Better speaker series.

David Yokum David Yokum

David Yokum discusses “Behavioral Science and Public Policy: Mapping the Next Five Years,”

Currently the director of the Brown Policy Lab at Brown University, Yokum has been at the vanguard of applied behavioral science’s influence on government and policy making. He was a founding member of the White House’s Social & Behavioral Sciences Team and director of its scientific delivery unit. He was also the founding director of the The Lab @ DC, a team within the District of Columbia’s mayoral administration that draws heavily on behavioral science.

In his talk, Yokum provided an overview of how behavioral science has become an integral part of government and policy making. He drew on examples from his work to show how the discipline can have powerful, immediate, and positive effects on government’s accountability, efficiency, community engagement, and its ability to best serve its constituents.

Recounting a story from his time in the White House’s Social & Behavioral Sciences Team, he explained how, by applying research from behavioral science and designing behavioral experiments, they identified one simple step in a purchasing and reporting process in the General Services Adminstration that saved the government $1.5 million per fiscal quarter.

Yokum also discussed how these kinds of insights have an essential role in much larger, more logistically complicated policy and government decisions. Yokum discussed the study conducted by his team at the Lab @ DC that looked at the impact that police-worn body cameras have on the dynamics between law enforcement and the communities they serve. The study was the largest randomized controlled trial ever done on a body worn camera program. At the time the study launched, many communities had great hope that the cameras, although highly expensive, would be invaluable in improving interactions with law enforcement. The study ran for a year and ultimately found no statistically significant effect on any of the outcomes such as use of force or the number of complaints. The findings surprised almost everyone, but became a way for the community to discuss and engage the issues.

He discussed lessons he has learned about both the potential and the challenge of the influence of behavioral science in government and policy—especially as the discipline’s methodologies and insights are more permanently embedded in administrative government.

“I do think we’re at a fragile moment,” Yokum said, discussing the progress that the field has made in improving the way government delivers value and services to its communities. “It is very expensive not to get this research right,” Yokum said. “I think we have an illustration of what’s possible, but to really capitalize on it, we’re going to have to invest in it a lot more.”