COVID-19 Pandemic

Five Evidence-Based Behavioral Science Practices for Social Services Agencies During COVID-19

By MDRC    May 12, 2020


Social services agencies are mobilizing to support clients’ resilience and ability to recover from the health and economic impacts caused by COVID-19. The demands of this situation and the innovative responses agencies are or will be considering, such as adapting processes, shifting modes of service delivery, and preparing for a surge in caseloads, put immense pressure on agencies, staff, and clients. Evidence from behavioral science shows that having limited resources, time, and opportunity — in other words, experiencing conditions of scarcity — introduces psychological burdens that limit our capacity to process information, make informed decisions, and follow through with intentions, a behavioral challenge known as cognitive overload.[1]

While behavioral science can help us name these challenges, it may also help us respond. Behavioral science research on decision making in contexts of scarcity, including tests of interventions in social services settings, offers useful guidance for staff adapting to today’s evolving challenges. Evidence from the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self Sufficiency (BIAS) and Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) projects provides five key insights about how agencies can reduce burden for clients and staff while they continue delivering vital services:

  1. Automate or remove steps where possible. Research shows that even small or seemingly simple steps in a process can obstruct progress. For staff processing a rush of new cases under novel conditions, and for newly eligible clients navigating unfamiliar systems, every step can add burden. The March 2019 Behavioral Buzz describes how the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services Office of Child Support addressed low rates of child support modification submissions by removing an unnecessary step — one that had clients demonstrate eligibility for a modification — by using information that the agency already had on file. Automating this step led to an increase in modification submissions and a decrease in processing time. These findings suggest that streamlining social services processes can increase access to benefits.
  2. Limit options to those most relevant to the decision maker. Another common behavioral barrier is choice overload, where the fatigue from considering too many options can lead to inaction.[2] Clients sorting through benefits eligibility and staff processing cases under new rules and procedures can become overwhelmed when confronted with too many options, especially if these options are presented in a way that feels complicated or disorganized. In the Paycheck Plus Demonstration, the Food Bank for New York City combatted choice overload with a simple postcard. In this test, a behaviorally informed postcard that presented the two meeting locations closest to the individual’s home address was compared to a standard postcard that listed five locations across the city. The behaviorally informed postcard boosted attendance to a required meeting and increased access to a helpful earnings supplement. This evidence suggests that providing clients or staff with fewer and more relevant options for taking action can increase follow-through.
  3. Simplify communications by focusing on the action (what), motivation (why), steps (how), and deadline (when). It’s difficult for staff and clients to sift through complex and conflicting information at any time, but especially during an emergency situation that places additional demands on their cognitive resources. TANF, child care, and child support agencies simplified their outreach materials using behavioral insights to help clients and staff reach key milestones. For example, the Texas Office of Attorney General Child Support Division found that simply reducing the text in outreach and application materials to only the most important and actionable information significantly increased the number of child support modification applications submitted. These and other revised outreach materials are showcased in the Behavioral Intervention Materials Compendium. Their results suggest that simplified communications can better motivate action.
  4. Break down actions into small, concrete steps. One way to simplify communications is to break down processes into small, digestible steps with checklists. For example, to increase parents’ on-time renewals of their child care subsidies, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services used checklists to simplify the steps of the renewal process. In this case, targeting staff was particularly effective, as staff were able to guide clients at a time when the benefits of the child care subsidy were most salient to clients (during the staff-client interaction). Giving staff the right tools to clarify concrete steps for clients helped increase the on-time renewal rate, which increased access to benefits and reduced staff burden.
  5. Send actionable reminders. Reminders can help focus the attention of staff and clients on pressing needs and required actions. In one series of tests, the Cuyahoga County Office of Child Support Services used text messages and mail reminders to increase the percentage of parents sending child support payments. Reminders that provide clear action steps toward key milestones will foster clarity rather than confusion.

Are you working to adapt social services operations for an expanding client population? Are you trying to streamline staff action under new rules and resource constraints? Check out the SIMPLER framework to learn about the seven behavioral science insights that were most commonly used in BIAS, and see examples of behaviorally informed materials created as part of the project in the Behavioral Intervention Materials Compendium.

Want even more insights? Email MDRC with your questions, and we will send personalized behavioral science recommendations. Or, let us know how you’re already incorporating behavioral insights as your agency navigates the COVID-19 public health emergency.


[1] Mani, Anandi, Sendhil Mullainathan, Eldar Shafir, and Jiaying Zhao. (2013). “Poverty impedes cognitive function.” Science, 341(6149), pp.976-980.

[2] Iyengar, Sheena, and Mark Lepper (2000). “When choice is demotivating: Can one desire too much of a good thing?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 79(6), p.995.

About the Author

MDRC

This post was written by MDRC—a nonprofit, nonpartisan social policy research organization—under contract to the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, within the Administration for Children and Families, as part of the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency-Next Generation project. Interested in learning more? Sign up for the Behavioral Buzz newsletter!


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