Panel Paper: Better Benefit Programs: Using Evidence to Reach and Retain Residents

Saturday, November 9, 2019
Plaza Building: Concourse Level, Plaza Ballroom D (Sheraton Denver Downtown)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Shruthi Arvind, Philadelphia Department of Revenue and Nathaniel Olin, Philadelphia Mayors Policy Office

This paper details a series of interventions by the City of Philadelphia’s PHL Participatory Design Lab and the Department of Revenue to help people pay delinquent property taxes in affordable installments.

Opt-in benefit programs only work if people know about the opportunity, can access the benefit, and remain in the program. These linked challenges - raising awareness, removing barriers to entry, and improving program experience - go beyond program policy, suggesting methods and insights from behavioral and social sciences, and service design.

We review how the City of Philadelphia identified needs and designed tests for improving outreach, the application process, missed-payment notices, and compliance for an opt-in benefit program designed to help people avoid tax foreclosure. We present the results of multiple randomized controlled trials and matching studies measuring the impact of these interventions on enrollments and missed payments.

We found that geographically-targeted outreach through door-to-door canvassing in high-need neighborhoods slightly increased enrollment in widely available benefit programs, but was less effective for the more targeted benefit programs for residents who owe property taxes. In contrast, neighborhood events with targeted mailed invitations were more effective than canvassing at increasing enrollment in targeted programs, especially when invitation letters came from City Council representatives. Letters from City Council were also more effective at enrolling people with higher rates of delinquency. We also found that redesigning the application form by testing variations with taxpayers made the application process easier for residents who were applying. Plain-language redesign of the letters communicating with residents, addressing their needs rather than focusing on regulations, successfully reduced the agreement breach rate for lower-income residents. Finally, we tested how to improve communicating complex program requirements to residents, to improve their compliance with the program.

Our research shows how local government can improve existing opt-in benefit programs with limited resources, by using behavioral and social science as well as service design methodology.