The Art of Nudging Technology Adoption in Government.

Author:Eggers, William D.
Position:Commentary - Column - Reprint

There's always going to be resistance to change. Behavioral science can help overcome it.

The U.S. Forest Service recently updated its field radios for thousands of dollars per piece. The new devices, which could store more frequencies and were easier to program, were intended to improve the firefighter experience. But some veteran wildland firefighters grumbled, pawned the new radios off on rookies, and continued to use the old ones. The problem was that in the new design the volume and channel dials had swapped places, and they didn't like it.

We all have seen this kind of thing happen. If you're implementing a new technology in an organization--even one as simple as an updated radio--unconscious resistance could mean the difference between an impactful improvement and end users developing a workaround that defeats the effort.

We've analyzed a diverse set of case studies of new technologies introduced to public-sector organizations (available at and found that the difference between full adoption and technological "tissue rejection" is not always a question of technology or even the basic strategy for piloting it in the organization. It's usually a matter of the attention paid to human behavior.

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An organization's technology and strategy are implemented, in the end, by real people. Real people are subject to cognitive biases. To learn how to improve the odds of getting a new technology to stick, we turned to behavioral science, which has explored how basic behavioral "nudges" can encourage people to transform their workflows even in the face of uncomfortable change.

Three basic strategies are a solid place to start:

* Intrinsic motivation: Humans often coast along in the tracks of their habits. To remake a habit requires conscious effort. Convincing end users that there is a good reason for that effort can inspire the expenditure of the cognitive energy required to uproot a habit.

It can be as simple as phrasing. Employees at a state human-services center who had to digitize paper applications were evaluated initially based on "number of backlogs resolved." When that measure changed to "number of citizens helped," the employees refocused their energy. Instead of shunting complex applications to the bottom of the pile because they slowed down the case-resolution rate, they addressed them to get aid to families. With simple adjustments to process and...

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