New Books Network

Emily Schmitt and Lashawn Richburg-Hayes

Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS)

Administration of Children and Families 2016

New Books in CommunicationsNew Books in Politics & SocietyNew Books in PsychologyNew Books in Public PolicyNew Books in SociologyNew Books Network June 6, 2016 Jason Balz

The application of behavioral science inside government has gained steam over the past few years with the creation of so-called “Nudge units” popping up...

The application of behavioral science inside government has gained steam over the past few years with the creation of so-called “Nudge units” popping up in countries around the world. Their goals are simple: Use the lessons of behavioral science to make government work better. The Behavioural Insights Team in the United Kingdom and the White House Social and Behavioral Sciences team in the U.S. Canada has a team now. Australia. Singapore. All the Scandinavian countries. Behavioral science teams now have a bit of buzz.

Before this buzz, there was BIAS – the Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-Sufficiency (BIAS) project, the first major opportunity to apply a behavioral science lens to programs that serve poor and vulnerable families in the United States. The project, which began in 2010 funded through the Administration of Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, sought to apply behavioral insights to issues related to the design and implementation of social service programs and policies with a goal of learn how such tools could be used to improve the well-being of low-income children, adults, and families. The non-profit education and social policy organization MDRC led the project. (Disclosure: I worked on BIAS in 2010-2011 at one of the partner organizations, ideas42, also participating.)

Traditionally, many social programs were designed in ways that individuals must make active decisions and go through a series of steps in order to benefit from them. They must decide which programs to apply to or participate in, complete forms, attend meetings, show proof of eligibility, and arrange travel and child care. Program designers have often assumed that individuals will carefully consider options, analyze details, and make decisions that maximize their well-being. BIAS drew heavily from that past three decades of research in the behavioral sciences showing that human decision making is often imperfect and imprecise. People clients and program administrators alike procrastinate, get overwhelmed by choices, miss details, lose their self-control, rely on mental shortcuts, and permit small changes in the environment to influence their decisions. As a result, programs and participants may not always achieve the goals they set for themselves.

Working through ACF programs, the BIAS team designed and tested 15 behaviorally-informed interventions in seven states involving nearly 100,000 people. Many of the interventions involved a redesign of communications materials. Projects ranged from increasing child support collections, to improving child care recertification processes, to changing messaging around TANF participation.

Along the way, BIAS researchers published a series of reports laying out not just which designs worked and didn’t, but how they went about implementing the designs in difficult bureaucratic and technological environments and when they faced challenges that altered their work. A final report is due out later this year. Of the 15 interventions, 11 showed positive signs of impact, making the overall project today one proof point among a growing number about the promise of applying insights from behavioral science to make government work better.


John Balz is Director of Strategy at VML, a full-service marketing agency with offices around the globe. He has spent his career applying behavioral science strategies in the marketing and advertising field through direct mail and email, display and .coms, mobile messaging, e-commerce and social media. You can follow him on Twitter @Nudgeblog and contact him at nudgeblog@gmail.com.