Panel Paper: The Bias Project: Applying Behavioral Insights to Human Services Programs

Monday, June 13, 2016 : 2:55 PM
Clement House, 2nd Floor, Room 06 (London School of Economics)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Lashawn Richburg-Hayes, Caitlin Anzelone, Nadine Dechausay and Patrick Landers, MDRC
The Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, launched in 2010, was the first major opportunity to use a behavioral economics lens to examine programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States. Sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research and Evaluation (OPRE) of the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and led by MDRC, the project applied behavioral insights to issues related to the operations, implementation, and efficacy of social service programs and policies. The goal was to learn how tools from behavioral science can be used to deliver programs more effectively and, ultimately, improve the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families. This paper summarizes and synthesizes the project lessons and findings.

In collaboration with government practitioners and academic experts, project researchers used a methodology known as “behavioral diagnosis and design” to apply insights from behavioral science in order to improve program outcomes. MDRC and its research partners engaged in behavioral diagnosis and design with over 20 agencies in four program areas: child care, child support (child maintenance), income support, and domestic violence. The project successfully completed fifteen random assignment evaluations of low-cost interventions intended to produce program improvements in a short timeframe. Accordingly, the tests used administrative data and focused primarily on proximal outcomes. The project also notably used iterative testing and replications to learn from and build upon its own research. BIAS interventions were expected to have moderate-sized effects that would be meaningful to program administrators because of their impact and scalability relative to their low implementation cost.

At every site where testing took place, low-cost interventions incorporating behavioral insights resulted in a statistically significant impact on at least one primary outcome of interest. Most interventions involved changes to the content and timing of messaging delivered through standard mail, government agencies’ traditional communication method. When possible, the BIAS team also expanded the channels for communicating with participants, testing text messaging, robocall, and email communications. Several tests combined revised communications with process changes, and the project used behavioral interventions that targeted both program participants and service providers.

This presentation will review the BIAS project’s research approach and findings in more detail. In addition, it will introduce a framework of the many behavioral insights incorporated into the project’s interventions. The presentation will also highlight some of the lessons learned from developing behavioral interventions and evaluating them in the field within human services programs. Finally, the presentation will propose the implications for this research on future attempts to incorporate behavioral insights into social policy and practice.

Full Paper: