By Pat Loeb

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — What can behavioral science tell us about littering? The city of Philadelphia is trying to find out. The city is conducting experiments on various groups of residents to figure out what works.

The entire city is potentially the petri dish for “GovlabPHL,” an effort to improve government by experimenting with different messages, processes, provisions. The mayor’s policy chief Anjali Chainani is in charge.

“We pilot program modifications and test to see what actually works before scaling something up,” Chainani said.

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She works with a team of behavioral scientists from local colleges. Dan Hopkins from Penn says it’s an academic’s dream come true.

“It’s a really neat, unparalleled opportunity to actually get to test these ideas in practice,” Hopkins said, “to put some of our research and our expertise to the test and see what actually works and which ideas don’t really scale up when you’re trying to deploy them in government.”

So, for instance, you say you’d recycle more if you had a good, covered bin. But would you? The city ran a controlled experiment in bin distribution on two routes – one in Brewerytown and one in Port Richmond. They gave out 1,500 bins in April and are studying the results even as they plan the next one on which messages people respond to best.

“We’re really invested in the public being able to capitalize and learn from these results, as well,”  Chainani said. “If it doesn’t, we may want to try something else before spending a lot of money on lidded bins.”

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Another experiment looks at how trash can placement affects littering.

And GovLabPHL is researching not just litter but other efforts. How best to get people to renew their Bike-share pass, for instance, or enroll in wellness programs.

“Employing behavioral science can help us get better bang for our scarce taxpayer dollars,” Hopkins said.