Don’t mess with data


In Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein recounted the story of the campaign to reduce littering on Texas highways called Don’t Mess with Texas.  Prior to launching it, Texas officials were enormously frustrated by the failure of their previous, well-funded, and highly publicized advertising campaigns, which attempted to convince people that it was their civic duty to stop littering.

Many of the litterers were men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, who were not exactly impressed by the idea that a bureaucratic elite wanted them to change their behavior.

Public officials decided that they needed “a tough-talking slogan that would also address the unique spirit of Texas pride.”  Explicitly targeting the unresponsive audience, the state enlisted popular Dallas Cowboys football players to participate in television ads in which they collected litter, smashed beer cans in their bare hands, and growled, “Don’t mess with Texas!”

“Within the first year of the campaign,” Thaler and Sunstein explained, “litter in the state had been reduced by a remarkable 29 percent.  In its first six years, there was a 72 percent reduction in visible roadside litter by 72 percent.  All this happened not through mandates, threats, or coercion but through a creative nudge.”

Their book is about choice architecture, i.e., organizing the context in which people make decisions.  As they define it, “a nudge is any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.  To count as a nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid.  Nudges are not mandates.”

The Don’t Mess with Texas campaign exemplifies how nudges, not mandates, can disrupt the status quo, alter people’s behavior, and help bring about necessary changes.

But I don’t think a similar campaign would work for the data quality aspects of a data governance program, with celebrities participating in a change management campaign in which they cleansed data, ripped up error-ridden reports with their bare hands, and growled, “Don’t mess with Data!”

How Nudge You?

A Don’t Mess with Data campaign would sound too much like a mandate, not a nudge.  So what creative nudges do you think might work for the data quality aspects of a data governance program?


About Author

Jim Harris

Blogger-in-Chief at Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality (OCDQ)

Jim Harris is a recognized data quality thought leader with 25 years of enterprise data management industry experience. Jim is an independent consultant, speaker, and freelance writer. Jim is the Blogger-in-Chief at Obsessive-Compulsive Data Quality, an independent blog offering a vendor-neutral perspective on data quality and its related disciplines, including data governance, master data management, and business intelligence.


  1. What I've found that works to "nudge" people in accepting data quality as part of their norm is to demonstrate the benefit to them; the WIIFM (what's in it for me) factor. This is especially true when the WIIFM factor is perceived to be larger than the cost of the effort to participate in data quality/data governance programs.

  2. Definitely agree that mandates tend not to work. In my experience, mandates only made people feel they weren't subject to the rules or disdainful towards authority.

    What's worked best for me personally is to encourage & empower users to produce good quality data.

    Tie a salesperson's bonus to the % of 'good' records they own (and educate them on what a good record is).

    Empower other users to correct data when they stumble upon bad data. Giving users the ability to easily correct (or suggest corrections to the right party) data was the most effective at getting data clean and keeping it that way.

    To me, data governance is basically setting the ground rules, educating users/stewards of that data on those rules and empowering users to correct violations of those rules.

  3. Jim Harris

    Thanks for your comments, Karen and Tonia.

    @Karen — The WIIFM Factor (note to self: that would make a great name for a data governance talent show, contact Simon Cowell’s people) is an essential aspect of most creative nudges, especially when, as you said, WIIFM > WMETP (what’s my effort to participate).

    @Tonia — Excellent point about empowering users being far superior to exerting power over users.

    Best Regards,


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