Interventions informed by behavioral science have consistently found positive results from “nudges” —low-cost tweaks to the environment or materials like letters, forms, and reminders. Our experiences with social services partners suggest that if we go beyond the tweaks that have frequently characterized behavioral interventions, we might see even larger impacts. Current projects like Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency – Next Generation (BIAS-NG) and Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) are testing interventions that go further, redesigning agency processes or changing the way staff interact with clients. Two BICS tests in Ohio offer a compelling example of the difference between nudge interventions and “next-generation” approaches.
Two Behavioral Approaches to Increase Child Support Modifications in Ohio
State child support programs secure financial support for children whose parents live apart. Federal policy has encouraged state- and county-run child support programs to adjust the level of required support from parents when financial or family circumstances change. Evidence suggests that matching child support order amounts to a parent’s ability to pay leads to increased compliance (Takayesu 2011). Reducing order amounts when a parent has a lower ability to pay means children are more likely to get at least some support, while increasing orders when a parent has a greater ability to pay allows more resources to go toward supporting children.
Currently, Ohio requires parents to engage in a four-step process to adjust a child support order. In Step 1, parents inquire about a modification review. Step 2 is demonstrating eligibility for a modification review using a one-page, double-sided form. For those determined eligible, Step 3 consists of completing a lengthy and complex modification packet, where parents provide relevant financial information. The process ends with Step 4, when parents are notified of whether or not their child support orders will be adjusted. On average, the entire process takes more than three months.
In Ohio, the child support agencies in Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County and Columbus’ Franklin County were finding that many parents did not complete all four steps. However, most parents who successfully reached the end of the process did receive a modification. These counties wanted to encourage more eligible parents to complete the entire process in order to receive child support modifications.
To understand the behavioral obstacles at play, the BICS team analyzed administrative data and spoke with both staff and parents. Conversations revealed that many parents found the process long and confusing. One common point of frustration was the need to submit what parents perceived to be two separate applications for one single modification (Steps 2 and 3). The complexity of the forms, parents’ general lack of trust in social services agencies, and inconsistent or incomplete guidance from staff acted as additional barriers. Administrative data showed that most parents dropped out of the process between Step 1 and Step 2, inquiring about the modification (Step 1) but not submitting the eligibility form (Step 2).
To increase the likelihood that eligible parents completed all steps of the modification process, the counties each decided to test a new approach to Step 2, demonstrating eligibility. Franklin County chose to test a more traditional nudge: creating a form that is easier to understand and to complete. Half of participants, a randomly selected intervention group, received a revised form with their basic information pre-populated, as well as a fact sheet outlining all required steps in the process and addressing frequently asked questions. The other half of participants, a randomly selected control group, received the original form, without the fact sheet.
Cuyahoga County took a next-generation approach by eliminating Step 2 in the order modification process entirely. Once parents inquired about a modification (Step 1), the county used administrative data to identify eligible cases and then randomly selected half of those cases (the intervention group) to skip directly to Step 3, by mailing them a modification packet. The other half of participants (the control group) went through the traditional modification process.
Although the populations in each county were similar and both tests saw positive impacts, the results of Cuyahoga County’s next-generation intervention were significantly larger, illustrating the potential of bolder behavioral changes to greatly improve outcomes. Cuyahoga County’s next-generation intervention led to a 12.4 percentage point increase in completed modification reviews, the target outcome. In addition, parents and staff saved both time and resources. Parents who were automatically deemed eligible filled out less paperwork and completed the process more than six weeks faster than parents in the control group. The elimination of the first form also freed up the staff hours previously required to mail, process, and review each one.
Franklin County’s application of well-documented behavioral science insights also saw a significant increase in completed modification reviews. Parents receiving Franklin’s behaviorally informed eligibility forms were 3.5 percentage points more likely to complete all four steps of the modification review process, as compared to those in the county who received the standard materials.
Lessons for Social Services Agencies
Across similar populations in the two Ohio counties, we learned two particularly important lessons for behavioral science as it advances into new frontiers across the public sector:
- Making forms clearer is helpful, but it can be even more effective to eliminate them completely. With every form and every step in a process, social services agencies lose at least some (and often many) clients. In Cuyahoga and Franklin, a single two-sided eligibility form led most families who expressed interest to miss out on a potentially critical review of their child support order.
- Social services agencies can use the data they already have to reduce the number of required steps in a process. Cuyahoga County proactively reviewed administrative data to determine eligibility for order modifications, leading to a dramatic improvement in completion rates of the child support modification process. For the test, staff manually checked eligibility at first: now that the county has seen the benefits, they are working to automate this determination within State-mandated parameters.
Strong county leadership, as demonstrated in both Franklin and Cuyahoga, can take significant steps to improve processes and generate evidence that could apply broadly to similar jurisdictions. Each of these Ohio counties led not just one but several behavioral tests to increase child support modifications. For Franklin, these efforts also included a next-generation staffing change that demonstrated an impressive impact.
Behavioral science allows us to continually investigate how and why people make certain decisions and take (or don’t take) specific actions. Over the next few years, BIAS-NG will further explore new approaches to behavioral design with social services agencies. We hope that staff, administrators, and policymakers continue to collaborate and use lessons from behavioral science to better serve their constituents, as in the case of these two counties in Ohio.