By Rachel Rosenberg

This is part of a series of posts about behavioral science and COVID-19. Click here to read about some of the most important behaviors during this pandemic—like seeking medical help, responding to humanitarian crises, and adapting to remote work in a global outbreak.

Across the country, tens of thousands of new cases of COVID-19 are reported every day. Cities throughout the country, like New York, Detroit, Seattle and New Orleans, have been especially hard hit, and infection rates are projected to rise in other cities. Statewide measures to “flatten the curve” require residents, from New Yorkers to Seattleites, to close all nonessential in-person operations, cancel gatherings of any size, and practice physical (social) distancing measures.

Both the spread of COVID-19 and the economic implications of new restrictions limit access to basic resources. Many restaurants and small businesses are closed; employees are out of work and newly navigating social safety net programs (unemployment claims are at an all-time high) or working double time to meet the need for take-out orders and additional requirements for sanitizing workspaces. Government agencies have had to modify and reduce service, while facing rapidly increasing demand for essential services. And, most if not all leisure activities, from sports leagues to artist collectives – typical outlets for mental health and stress relief – are cancelled unless they can pivot to digital.

This confluence of events creates a new context of scarcity – or a chronic lack of key resources (e.g. food, money, health, wellness) – for people living across the U.S., and the government agencies and staff who serve them. On top of that, our mental energy is focused on the continuous need to stay up-to-date with rapidly evolving COVID-19 guidelines and policy changes. Both residents and public servants may be feeling stretched thin across such shifting responsibilities – both at home and for work.

Households living in poverty are especially affected by the intensification of scarcity created by the pandemic. Not only do families living on low incomes experience the economic impacts of layoffs and unpaid sick leave more acutely, but they also make up the bulk of staff on the frontlines of essential services – from elder care workers and hospital janitors to kitchen staff and bus drivers – further exposing them to the risks for infection, and the looming stress of the possibility.

We know from behavioral science that this experience of scarcity affects cognitive functioning in predictable and damaging ways. When faced with limited resources, people unconsciously “tunnel” or intensely focus on the most pressing problem at hand, while neglecting other demands. This intense focus can be helpful in the short term, but is counterproductive for tasks that are important yet not urgent – such as planning for the future, practicing health and wellness, and supporting child development.

Our research in behavioral design for chronic scarcity can help public agencies adjust programs to best respond to the emerging needs of their residents and create resources to support public servants as they adapt in this pandemic. Many of our teams that partner with public agencies on behavioral design projects are already shifting priorities to help agency staff apply these principles to support their COVID-19 response.

Three Ways to Apply Behavioral Design to Program Adaptation and Design

Government agencies serving their residents during the COVID-19 pandemic have a number of tools at their disposal: public funding, talented and committed staff, connections to goods and services from local organizations, and valuable know-how. Below are three recommendations to add to that “toolkit.”

Recommendation 1: Cut the costs

Families with low incomes already face significant costs associated with maintaining eligibility for programs like food support or health insurance. As resources become more scarce and accessing services in-person becomes riskier, it will be crucial to cut the costs of accessing essential services by relaxing or eliminating the temporal and cognitive costs associated with application and eligibility processes.

For employees, agency leadership can cut the costs of what it takes to do a good job – by making updated guidelines succinct, clear, and actionable and building relationships across teams – to help agencies function as smoothly as possible in the midst of crisis response.

Recommendation 2: Create slack

Living with limited resources of any kind is risky and unforgiving. Any unexpected shock, like losing employment due to layoffs or dealing with a sick family member, can throw everything off track. Wherever possible, government programs should create slack for residents by providing more of a cushion to support those experiencing unexpected shocks due to COVID-19.

Public agencies can create slack for their employees by being unconditionally generous with additional or unlimited sick leave, “giving time back” to staff by shifting nonessential tasks off their plates, and establishing safeguards that reduce the likelihood of preventable errors, through increased automation or timely reminders.

Recommendation 3: Reframe and empower

Poverty also affects families in a less visible way, by shaping their understanding of who they are, how they fit into society, and what’s possible for their future and their families’ futures. De-stigmatizing people’s need for government help is key in this crisis moment. By promoting positive interactions between agencies and residents, and putting decision-making back in the hands of families, we can improve short- and long-term outcomes.

Government employees experience less visible effects of COVID-19 through a growing sense of disempowerment – in terms of where they can go, how they live, and what they can control. This may threaten employee morale and productivity. Agencies can rebuild employees’ sense of agency, even through something as simple as intentional language for COVID-19 guidance. For example, rather than use negatively-framed “Don’t do Y,” which emphasizes what employees can’t do, using affirmative “Do X” emphasizes some control.

We are here to help.

Our economic justice team is supporting COVID response for public agencies in New York, California, Texas, and elsewhere.  We are offering consultations for public and non-profit agencies in New York City to support program adaptation to meet the emerging needs of residents and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read more about how governments can apply behavioral principles to their COVID-19 response, including examples for each of the above recommendations, and get in touch with our economic justice team to find out how we can help: