Completing a construction permit application correctly requires detailed knowledge of permitting standards and regulations in the District. In 2016, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) began focusing on hosting workshops for residents to learn how to apply for construction permits, but few people attended. Through a randomized evaluation, we found that invitations designed based on behavioral science theory did not impact the number of people who attended the workshop. Although we don’t recommend that agencies use the intervention tested in this study to recruit people to participate in their educational programs, agencies who want to improve turnout should test other interventions created through user-centered design and using insights from behavioral science.
Why is this issue important in DC?
DCRA issued 45,000 construction permits in 2016. The process for getting a permit can be slow though, with 21% of building plans requiring three or more reviews. DCRA offered workshops to teach people about the process, increase the number of quality applications, and reduce processing time, but historically, attendance at the event was only 16% of capacity.
What did we do?
With DCRA and the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), we designed an email (see image) that included clear instructions for signing up for the event1 and talked about the downsides of not going to a workshop. We chose this intervention because people usually care more about losing something, like time or money, than gaining something, like information.2
In May 2017, we emailed an invitation for an upcoming workshop to all 22,987 people on DCRA’s listserv. We randomly assigned half of the people to get the redesigned invitation and the other half to get DCRA’s regular invitation and then tracked how many from each group who showed up to the event.
What have we learned?
We found that the redesigned invitation did not recruit significantly more people to sign-up for to or attend the workshop than DCRA’s regular email. In fact, people who received DCRA’s regular email were actually more likely to attend in-person versus online, meaning that they had more opportunities to ask questions and interact with DCRA staff.
What comes next?
Now, to increase attendance, DCRA holds some workshops in the evening and in the community by partnering with community groups to help get the word out. Further research to improve workshop attendance could investigate the impact of including a checklist of steps for filling out a permit application and sending text messages or postcards instead of emails.
What happened behind the scenes?
The Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) originated as an applied behavioral science team in the United Kingdom’s Cabinet Office, demonstrating that rigorous testing can be done quickly and at low-cost within a government. Sound familiar? It was great to collaborate with a team that inspired so much of our work.