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Abandoned shopping carts and complaint forms

Evening Post & Mail
On returning shopping carts in the parking lot, purple streetlights that shouldn’t be that color, and making it easier for people to do the right thing

Some trivial-seeming behaviors don’t just reveal people’s inner sense of responsibility, they can go on to shape it. A good example is whether people return their shopping carts to a corral rather than leaving them loose in a parking lot. It turns out that the more people observe that taking responsibility and cleaning up after themselves is the social norm, the more likely they are to observe the norm.
■ Good behavior, then, has the capacity to be self-reinforcing. But someone has to be the first to follow the norm, otherwise it won’t catch on.
■ It’s obvious to any reasonable observer that these forces are on full display in the online dimension of life. Good behavior is often reinforced within digital communities that have the power to expel offenders, and bad behavior often cascades into exhibitions like flame wars and troll swarms.
■ There is an important but non-obvious role for public-facing institutions to play to help channel behavior towards the good, and it occurs in an unlikely interface between the physical world and the digital one. That role is, simply, to offer easy ways to report malfunctions, breakdowns, and other deviations from the expected standards through as many channels as possible, and to prominently solicit public help in submitting those reports.
■ It may not be obvious, for instance, that purple-tinted street lights are evidence of defective fixtures that need replacement. But that is what they are, and it isn’t necessarily obvious (even to the individual who recognizes it as a problem) where to report the malfunction.
■ This places the burden on public agencies to make it quick and easy to submit a report through as many potential channels as can be made relevant to the problem. The public-minded citizen shouldn’t have to do a lot of work to figure out what agency has jurisdiction over a matter or how properly to report it.
■ Submitting the report should be the easiest step, and the more complicated work of sorting and forwarding the report through the appropriate channels should fall on whatever agency first received it. People don’t dial “411” anymore; they go online. But they’re not equipped with infinite patience to figure out who is the right point of contact.
■ Making it as painless and intuitive as possible for a citizen to do the right thing – to reinforce norms of pro-social behavior – is an imperative task for any public-facing institution, especially when they’re run for the benefit of the taxpayers.
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Brian Gongol
Brian Gongol @briangongol

Make money, have fun, clean up after yourself, and mind your business. Weekdays at 7pm Central, generally in 750 words or less.

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