Research Agenda

My work focuses on policy design—the sets of design choices that shape how a policy ultimately presents itself to citizens—and its political consequences.

Public policies with the same goal, and the same cost, can be designed very differently. My research explores how the design features of specific policies matter for how citizens perceive that policy, and indeed, how they value government as a whole.

Dissertation Project

Everyday Politics of the Social Contract: 
How Design Shapes Citizens’ Views of the Costs and Benefits of Governance                  

People interact with the government every day, regardless of whether they are conscious of it. Can these small, mundane interactions slowly but surely shape people’s views of governance?

For most of history, people had only infrequent personal contacts with government institutions and employees. The modern social contract generates direct interfaces between citizens and the state, in the form of taxation and publicly-funded services. My dissertation posits that these seemingly banal interactions are more influential than previously thought.

While most scholarly attention has focused on the content of the policies that generate these encounters, I argue that their design—the ways in which policy content is presented to citizens, both on the taxation and spending side of the state equation—can play an important role in shaping impressions of government.

This view challenges the ways political scientists currently think perceptions of government are formed, which focus on self-interest, personal identity, or collective influences. Simply changing policy design—the non-financial, non-substantive characteristics of how a government policy ultimately appears to citizens—affects none of these; design does not change calculations of self-interest since policy content is identical, nor does it change identity, background, values, or group influences. If policy design nonetheless has the power to impact attitudes towards governance, these commonly-held theories would be incomplete.

Select Working Papers

Claiming Unclaimed Benefits:
Testing the Effects of Digital Interventions to Help Low-Income Customers Claim a Government Benefit

(with Michael Hiscox)

Why do citizens in need leave money on the table, by failing to claim valuable government benefits? We test different explanations related to policy design in a large-scale field experiment involving a sample of 250, 000 individuals potentially eligible for a substantial government benefit, suspected to have a very low take-up rate. We also examine political and financial consequences of increased benefit take-up.

For more information, see this study in the AEA RCT Registry:

Feeling Taxed?
How Policy Design Highlights the Costs of Governance in Sweden and the United States

[link to paper coming soon]

I present evidence that the form of the income tax settling process can influence views of government efficiency and affect the level of support for the state.

Taxation is understudied, despite being one of the most direct links between citizens and the state. In this regard, the striking differences between the United States and Sweden provide a fascinating setting in which to explore this topic. I find that in Sweden, design elements, such as a simple almost effortless filing process and concentrated refund payouts, make tax refunds highly visible to citizens—while tax filing is largely invisible. In contrast, in the United States, a complex tax code and a special tax filing day shift the focus onto the payment of taxes and its associated burden of paperwork.

To connect the dots between tax policy design and what citizens pay attention to, I apply natural language processing methods to years of newspaper coverage on taxes in Sweden and the United States, as well as internet search data. In the United States, much more online search and media attention are devoted to the tax return process than to the payout of tax refunds, and most attention is negative. In Sweden, attention is almost exclusively focused on tax refund payout, and the tax filing rhetoric is much more positive.

To examine whether these design differences in fact shape perceptions, I conduct an online survey experiment on a nationally representative sample of 1,000 Americans. The results suggest that manipulating visible elements of tax policy design within a country can produce measurable changes in attitudes toward government: being randomly assigned to a U.S.–style design and media environment substantially increases the odds of citizens reporting that the government is too large, that it is inefficient, and that it wastes money. A Swedish–style design results in more favorable evaluations of the state.

"Take Your Goddamn Government Hands Off My Medicare!"
Or How Policy Design Influences Perceived Benefits of Government       

[link to paper coming soon]

Does the government get credit (and blame) where it is due? This paper examines whether citizens, in various Western countries, identify the state as the provider of a range of publicly-funded benefits, and why. Survey and experimental methods are used to tease out which design characteristics that help shape the salience of the role of the state as a provider.

Everyday Taxation:
The Salience of the Costs of Government 

[link to paper coming soon]

There is at least one form of taxation that citizens in developed countries experience practically every day: taxes on consumption. Policymakers can design this consumption tax as a sales tax, which is typically not included in the posted price consumers see, or as a value-added tax (VAT), which is already included. This paper uses an online shopping experiment to test how this seemingly small design detail matters for perceptions of governance.