Can a new approach to problem-solving lead to better outcomes?
The behavioral insights movement in government, education, and nonprofit organizations got a boost recently when Richard Thaler, one of its founders, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. New studies and program improvement efforts continue to show the potential of using evidence from behavioral economics, psychology, and marketing to improve program outcomes. Readers of this newsletter know that the Administration for Children and Families has been at the forefront of this work. The results of behavioral tests get a lot of attention (for good reason!), but we focus much less on the practical lessons that can be drawn from the process of developing and implementing interventions. The recently published final report of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, Nudging Change in Human Services, fills this gap by devoting an entire chapter to lessons we learned from implementing the different interventions (Chapter 5). We summarize and expand upon two of them here, illustrating the points with examples from another project, Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS), which is currently ongoing. Each example includes a practice tip for those trying to implement program innovations informed by behavioral insights.
Insight #1: Diagnosing “bottlenecks” through a careful exploration of program processes leads staff at every level to discover areas of tensions and new insights.
Teams that work on these projects go through a process called “behavioral diagnosis and design” in order to develop behavioral interventions. Often this is done with the support of researchers and behavioral experts who bring a fresh eye and knowledge base, but trained staff with some dedicated time can facilitate the process internally. The diagnosis stage involves scrutinizing the steps in an organizational process, the language on forms, and the timing of events. It provides a focused opportunity to look closely at an organization’s systems and routine practices. It is often the first time in a long time that managers have looked at the program at that level of detail – and from the participant’s point of view! Typically, staff will discover contradictions between what is supposed to occur and what actually happens, creating immediate opportunities for improving the process and pointing to ways to do so using behavioral science. One tool to help you make these discoveries is a process map.
A process map is a diagram of every step of a process from start to finish. It can be a flow chart, table, or graph. Below, we show a simplified example that illustrates the steps that lead to a modification of a child support order in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, one of the sites in BICS.
- TIP: Create a process map
A map of steps with drop-off rates from the BICS Ohio Site
The team noticed a significant drop-off between those noncustodial parents who had expressed interest in an order modification (step 1) and those who sent back their “request packet” to initiate the process (step 2). In other words, many parents dropped out of the order modification process before the child support agency could even consider whether or not they were eligible.
By using the process map to identify this source of attrition, the BICS team came up with a targeted solution: they eliminated step 1 in the process and instructed staff to automatically conduct reviews, based on presumed eligibility, of cases that met basic criteria. Cuyahoga County hypothesizes that this will lead to more completed modification requests and reduce the processing time.
Insight #2: The commitment to putting the client’s perspective first — rather than staff’s — typically requires doing more than what had been done before, at least in the short term.
Organizations often rely on a single communication contact to prompt participants to complete necessary actions that will benefit them. For example, parents who need to recertify their benefits may get one notice a month before the recertification deadline. In addition, that contact may not be designed with the psychological and material needs of the participant in mind. The behavioral insights approach focuses on those needs by being strongly user-centered and incorporating lessons from behavioral science to understand how participants might actually consume and interpret information, as well as act. This typically leads organizations to acknowledge that, given the human tendency to procrastinate, forget, or give up when something appears complex or the process is unclear, most participants would benefit from additional encouragement and support to move from intention to action — meaning that behavioral interventions typically involve doing something that the program had not been doing previously. Delivering reminders is one – but not the only – way to do this.
Reminders help participants follow through on actions by providing frequent, timely prompts. They should not be an excessive burden on program staff since reminders can be delivered via text message, postcard, or phone or added to meetings participants are already attending. The key is that they should be timely, specific, and personalized. In the BICS Colorado study, the team created a short meeting for staff and noncustodial parents to create a plan to make payments manually until child support payments started coming out of their paychecks (or indefinitely, if no they did not have a regular employer). The parent chose a payment method and schedule of payments based on his or her unique circumstances. For example, parents with bank accounts might choose to pay by setting up an automatic deduction, and many parents want to pay child support on the day they get paid. Parents walk away from the meeting with a wallet card that contains all the key information they need to implement this plan. Even with a good plan, though, anyone can fall victim to prospective memory failure – when we plan to do something in the future and then forget to do it when the time comes. That’s why the team included personalized text message reminders that were sent the days the parent said they intended to make their payments.
- TIP: Remind, remind, remind
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Text message reminder language from BICS Colorado Site
Colorado hypothesizes this will increase on-time payments in the first few months after child support orders are set. Results from BICS tests will be released starting at the end of this year.
Stay up to date on our behavioral research!
- Read the full BIAS report, Nudging Change in Human Services (PDF). More on the original BIAS project is available here. The successor to that project, BIAS-Next Generation, is in the design phase with five active TANF and child welfare sites. Bookmark this page for updates.
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