Spotlight Exclusives

Pandemic Disruption: How Public Benefit Programs Can Use Behavioral Science to Create Successful Innovation

Allison Yates-Berg Allison Yates-Berg, posted on

By Allison Yates-Berg, Vice President at ideas42

In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S., the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved waivers to allow programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to better serve participants in this moment. For example, waivers allow WIC agencies to offer remote access to benefits and more flexible food packages. Changes like these can actually improve participants’ experiences with public benefit programs during a pandemic or not. By any measure, the pandemic has been catastrophic; it has also galvanized the political will for this innovation to happen. And recently these waivers were extended for the duration of the COVID-19 public health emergency.

We have been working with WIC agencies for several years at ideas42 to improve participant retention and satisfaction using behavioral design. The behavioral insights gleaned from this work can support administrators of public benefit programs who are taking on new innovative approaches during the pandemic. These three insights in particular can be useful to administrators and program designers in the time of COVID-19:

  1. Whenever possible, remove or reduce any ambiguity.

Before the pandemic, we partnered with Texas WIC to create a visual guide to help participants understand and follow the appointment process (and included a small toy for children). This simple design, which removed ambiguity about what to expect during an appointment, increased appointment satisfaction by 14 percentage points, even with an already high baseline of satisfaction. When participants are more satisfied with their experience, they are more likely to engage with the program.

Enduring a pandemic, and accessing or administering public benefits and services in a pandemic, is new and confusing territory. Making processes simple to follow is even more important for remote or redesigned programs, which feel new to everyone. That’s why it’s critical to address any ambiguity when designing something new. Even the use of jargon or an unclear step in a process can have an outsized impact on engagement.

To implement this insight, have staff go through the exact process that participants are asked to do and see where they struggle; intentionally look for places where existing knowledge may be assumed; and run a communications audit of materials to ensure that communications are clear and actionable.

  1. Capture the (incredibly taxed) attention of participants at the right moments. 

In a recent partnership with California WIC, we found that the optimal texting frequency to remind participants to attend their WIC appointments was one week in advance and then again one day in advance. The first text message helped ensure that participants received information when they could act on it– in this case, when they could create plans for attending their appointment. Previously, agencies sent messages the day before the appointment that included simply the date and time of the appointment. This left little time for participants to create plans, such as preparing documents or ensuring they had a ride to their appointment.

The pandemic has sucked attention away from other important things in life. When you’re thinking about homeschooling, how you’ll pay rent, and finding your next job, you have a lot on your mind. For public benefit program participants, little attention remains for the numerous requirements of these programs (which, we would argue, would be a good place to cut down). Now more than ever it’s critical to account for participants’ taxed bandwidth in program design.

This insight applies beyond appointment reminders. To use it, consider whether messages are delivered to participants at a moment they can act (e.g., sort out their work schedule, plan for childcare, or find access to WIFI). A rule-of-thumb: participants should have enough time to plan, but not so much time that they can procrastinate or forget. Think also of ways to build in a “safeguard,” such as sending multiple communications (but not so many they become annoying or easy to ignore). In addition, flexibility helps when it’s harder to capture attention: give participants a chance to continue using a program even if they miss an appointment, forget to provide a document at first, or need more time to accomplish tasks. Always start by considering ways to engage participants through existing channels, touchpoints, and processes, rather than creating new appointments or paperwork requirements.

  1. Account for the (hidden) costs on staff.

Not every behavioral design we develop is effective (which is why we always strive to test our designs), but every design gives us an opportunity to learn. The Journey/Pathway design, a roadmap to guide participants through their first 5 years on WIC, followed a best practice in behavioral science: it was incorporated into an existing process (the WIC enrollment appointment), but it didn’t work. We hypothesize it was not successful because it failed to account for hidden costs on staff. Though it contained information staff was already discussing with participants, it added one more task (walking participants through the roadmap) to the long list of things staff had to remember to do in a brief appointment window.

Both behavioral scientists and program designers are often laser-focused on the participant experience while designing new innovation, but the experience of staff also has a crucial impact on outcomes. This matters now more than ever, as program staff are also living in a pandemic. They are also experiencing ambiguity and facing cognitive burdens as they navigate staying healthy and the myriad of other pandemic troubles. These are often hidden costs– not things that can be easily measured by a time study or observation– but they’re nevertheless there.

To apply this insight, consider the various types of costs your design may impose on staff, including temporal costs and cognitive effort. Build your designs into existing workflows and be cognizant of the number of things you’re asking of staff. As much as possible, co-design, pilot, observe, and get feedback from staff.

Innovation is more important than ever. People are seeking help during the pandemic because of very real problems: their families are not getting enough to eat, they have lost their job, and rent is due. Creating smooth program updates that take into account taxed attention and ambiguity mitigation are crucial to getting them the relief they need. The time is now to experiment and push the boundaries in program design. Insights from applied behavioral science are useful to advance these goals and can help ensure programs work better for people experiencing economic hardship both during the pandemic and (hopefully, eventually) beyond.

Allison Yates-Berg is a Vice President at ideas42, a non-profit that uses insights from human behavior to help improve lives, build better systems, and drive social change.

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