How Behavioral Insights Can Help Policymakers Improve Programs

Employment programs often do not work as intended owing to behavioural responses of clients to different aspects of the programs. For example, some people do not participate in all available services offered by a program, or others drop out of it before completion. Such actions can be attributed to such familiar human tendencies as procrastination, forget­fulness, or being overwhelmed by too many choices or required actions, owing to limited time, patience or attention on the part of the job seeker. These behaviours often prevent programs from meeting their recruitment or outcome objectives.

Studies have shown that relatively modest changes to program materials, forms, or processes can positively affect participants’ behaviours and greatly improve program outcomes and performance. This fact sheet (and accompanying blogpost) from Mathematica Policy Research (MPR) draws on MPR’s own design and testing work to show how on behavioural research can be used to design, alter and deliver programs that are more effective in terms of take-up and outcomes.

In the factsheet, readers (and listeners) are encouraged to think carefully about how to develop a “nudge” (a small behavioural intervention), test its impact, and clearly report the findings. Specifically, Mathematica provides a six-step process on how agencies can build nudges into their programs to enhance their effectiveness:

  1. Fully understand the problem to be addressed by the program.
  2. Diagnose behavioural bottlenecks that may be contributing to the problem.
  3. Design and field-test interventions that fit the context and the available resources.
  4. Provide ongoing support for frontline staff to implement the interventions.
  5. Conduct rigorous, low-cost tests to determine whether they work as intended.
  6. Communicate findings clearly and promptly to share lessons learned and inform next steps.

The fact sheet also provides a number of examples of Mathematica’s work with and for US government agencies to integrate nudges into programs to encourage certain behaviours. Examples that are relevant for the BC Centre for Employment Excellence and its stakeholders include the following:

  • Sending reminders to increase participation in re-employment services: Mathematica is currently working with the US Department of Labor (DOL) in an initiative, called Behavioral Interventions for Labor-Related Programs, to apply behavioural science principles to certain ongoing DOL programs. One relevant example from this initiative is a project to test the effectiveness of sending encouragement emails to clients in increasing participation in reemployment services.
  • Using nudges to promote job retention after injury or illness: Mathematica researchers are working with the Office of Disability and Employment at DOL to examine the bottlenecks possibly contributing to job loss for people who develop a work-limiting condition, and to identify strategies informed by behavioural science to increase chances of clients staying on the job.
  • Providing participation incentives in employment and training programs: For the US Department of Agriculture, Mathematica is evaluating the effects of participation incentives, offered within Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment and Training pilot projects, to unemployed and underemployed clients in the form of job search, job skills training, education (basic, post-secondary, vocational), work experience or training. Effectiveness is measured in terms of employment, earnings, and public assistance dependency outcomes.
  • Behavioral strategies to support self-regulation and employment goal attainment: For the US Department of Health and Human Services, Mathematica researchers identified self-regulation skills that may help people attain employment-related goals, and recommended a range of behavioural strategies that could help them strengthen or acquire those skills in order to achieve those goals.

This information will be relevant to policy and program designers as well as practitioners regarding the introduction of small program innovations to improve client take-up and program effectiveness.