How to Prime Feds for Better Performance

October 11, 2011

One hot trend in corporate America is to use quick, real-time experiments in grocery stores, restaurants and hospitals to measure the impact of various interventions on customer behavior. A common example is testing a variety of website layouts and messages. Those accessing a site will randomly be shown different versions, and the site owner compares reactions (say, click-throughs) by the visitors to see which configurations get the best response.

It is time to introduce the idea of quick experiments into government. As with the example above, agencies could use that approach to test alternative website configurations. Or they could use it to test the impact of different versions of public service announcements, perhaps randomly shown in different TV markets, or other government initiatives designed to influence behavior.

I am especially interested, however, in a different use of experiments: to check the impact of various management interventions on the performance of employees or teams inside agencies.

Recently, I came across some fascinating academic papers by Gary Latham, a professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management and the world's leading researcher on the impact of goal-setting on human performance, and his colleague Amanda Shantz. They tested the impact of "priming" an unobtrusive performance-enhancing message on the performance of call-center employees. 

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