Good for you or good for us? A field experiment on motivating citizen behavior change

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Syon P. Bhanot


Field experiment, Administrative burden, Motivation, Behavioral policy, E-government


In recent years, public sector agencies have increasingly been moving citizen services online to reduce administrative burdens for citizens and costs for governments. However, motivating citizens to make the transition to online services can be difficult. In this paper, I report on a randomized control trial with the Philadelphia Licenses and Inspections Department, testing a letter intervention with 11,579 rental license holders designed to encourage them to register for an account and renew online. Subjects were randomly assigned to either a control group that did not receive a letter or one of three treatment groups: 1) Standard (a simple reminder letter); 2) Personal Benefits (a letter with added language emphasizing the reduced burden for citizens from online renewal); and 3) City Benefits (a letter with added language emphasizing the benefits to the city from online renewal). I find a statistically significant, positive effect of letter receipt on both online registration and renewal; for example, the treatment letters increased the probability of renewing at least one license online from 12.3% in the control to 20.4% for the treatments pooled together. Furthermore, the City Benefits letter was the least effective treatment, though there were only small differences between treatments. Finally, the letters were generally more effective for subjects not residing in Philadelphia, suggesting that “nudge” campaigns to reduce administrative burden may be most effective for those facing the highest burdens from in-person public service delivery.

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