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Maxwell X Lab innovates policymaking through behavioral science

How can behavioral science help high school students increase their chances of going to college? How can an underutilized healthcare program for low-income people better target its communications so that people who need it know of its availability and use it? How can local nonprofits help close the achievement gap for children entering kindergarten?

These are just a few of the issues under examination by the Maxwell X Lab, a new Maxwell School unit whose understanding of human behavior, based in social science and behavioral economics research, leads to improvements in policy and program outcomes.

Len Lopoo with Maxwell X LabLaunched in January 2017 as a component of the Center for Policy Research, the Lab's primary goals are to help Maxwell students and faculty run experiments that result in reliable, convincing outcomes; to bring informed, innovative ideas to the conversation as the experiments are being developed; and, lastly, to develop partnerships in the community and with nonprofit organizations locally, nationally, and internationally.

"This is exciting for the School because it provides a valuable resource for our faculty and graduate students to help with randomized, controlled field experiments, which is the best way to understand if something is happening causally," shared Len Lopoo, professor of public administration and international affairs and co-founder and director of the lab. "That's what we're all interested in: 'If I implement this policy, what exactly does it do?'"

By providing program consultation steeped in the lessons of behavioral economics to local agencies — and at a comparatively modest cost — Maxwell is also fulfilling its mission to partner with the local public sector. "It's a great marriage between the mission of the School and the interests of our scholars," stated Lopoo, also director of the Center for Policy Research.

"We analyze people's micro-behaviors along the continuum of a problem and then implement targeted changes to overcome these obstacles," explained Joe Boskovski '14 MPA, co-founder and managing director of the Lab. The Lab, inspired in part by organizations such as the Bloomberg-funded Behavioral Insights Team (where Boskovski worked previously), consults with clients — mostly government agencies and other nonprofits — to study human behavior around real-world problems and develop, implement, and evaluate meaningful policy interventions.

Making a Difference
Though only in its infancy, the Lab's current partnerships are already positioned to make a difference in Onondaga County in the sectors of health and education.

Joe Boskovski Maxwell X LabIn its work with family planning clinics funded by the Onondaga County Health Department, X Lab aims to decrease the no-show rate, currently about 50%, for appointments made by patients seeking reproductive health services. "Simply making sure that those patients who have taken the step to reach out and make an appointment actually show up is important," explained Boskovski. "It's better for the patients, and it's better for the county health department. It's a win-win across the board."

In separate projects with the Health Foundation for Western & Central New York and Beespace, X Lab's analysis of economic demographics, in the context of health insurance, will help these organizations make informed decisions when planning behavioral interventions for future projects.

In the area of education, X Lab is working to improve outcomes for students in both the primary and secondary levels. In its work with the Early Childhood Alliance to close the achievement gap of children entering kindergarten, the Lab is evaluating the messages used in educational materials given to parents in an effort to encourage parents to read to their children more often.

In another promising project, the X Lab co-founders are working with Syracuse University in collaboration with Say Yes, in the Syracuse City School District, to increase the number of students taking SAT prep classes. The goals are not only to help students perform better on the SAT itself, but also to increase the likelihood that these students will apply to college.

When Expertise Meets Innovation
Len Lopoo and Joe BoskovskiThe Maxwell X Lab is the result of Lopoo and Boskovski realizing that, together, they could support the need in academia and the public sector for guidance in how to use behavioral science to make informed decisions in research and policy. Through their collaboration, Lopoo and Boskovski empower two emerging trends in social science and public sector innovation: behavioral science and rigorous evaluation.

"The team that we are assembling at the X Lab, and the partnerships we are creating with community organizations, allow us to get into the game where we weren't in the game before," adds Lopoo. "We now have the capacity to use these behavioral science insights with field experiments to conduct cutting-edge research that helps our community immediately. Further, we can now publish research that improves lives outside of this immediate area. We also can compete for large research grants because funders want to see this type of innovation in grant applications. This innovative way of addressing problems and finding solutions is both rewarding and exciting."