Local government agencies directly impact millions of people’s day-to-day lives, providing essential public services that keep our cities running. Yet we know from behavioral science—the study of how people make decisions and take action in the real world—that there are many reasons programs and services don’t reach as wide or diverse of a population as they could. Sometimes programs require regular renewal and complicated applications that compete for people’s scarce time and resources, or people may believe a program is not meant for them. These types of barriers or mental models of how and for whom programs work can disproportionately disadvantage those with the fewest resources.
Fortunately, behavioral design can make a meaningful difference when it comes to problems like these. For the past four years the New York City Behavioral Design Team (BDT)—a partnership between the NYC Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity and ideas42—has been redesigning elements of programs and services to make them more accessible to more New Yorkers, and make the City more equitable for more of its residents.
We’ve undertaken 47 projects and worked with 15 different City agencies to diagnose behavioral barriers, design solutions, and evaluate their impact. From this extensive work, we’ve distilled four ways behavioral design has improved equity by making New York City more accessible—just a small sample of what the partnership has produced and what behavioral science can accomplish in the future, particularly if other agencies and cities adopt a behavioral approach and insights.
Preventing loss of food benefits
Each year, the SNAP program (formerly known as food stamps) requires clients to recertify in order to continue receiving their benefits. Around 25-30% of clients do not complete the required steps and lose their benefits, only to reapply within a few months. This not only causes people to lose a month or more of needed food benefits for themselves and their families, but it also increases the City resources (staff and tax dollars) needed to serve its residents.
To help improve recertification rates and avoid unnecessary loss of food benefits, the BDT redesigned a reminder notification that both informed clients about required next steps, and simplified them. Clients who received the notification were 5% more likely to take the first critical step in the recertification process: submitting the recertification form. Clients who received the notice also submitted their recertification forms earlier: these clients were 12.9% more likely to submit their forms by day 45 of the 75-day recertification period, compared to clients who did not receive the notice.
Helping Gifted & Talented programs reach more low-income students
New York’s Gifted & Talented programs offer specialized instruction and enrichment opportunities to exceptional students regardless of socioeconomic status, and can make a real difference in the educational trajectory of students from backgrounds with fewer resources. However, students in low-income districts are less likely than their peers in higher-income districts to take the admissions test. As a result, fewer low-income students test into and attend Gifted & Talented programs, missing out on potential benefits.
The BDT redesigned emails and postcards to encourage parents of all preschoolers entering kindergarten to sign their students up for the test, in a randomized controlled trial. The redesigned communications used a congratulatory tone to prime the positive identity of a proud parent and framed the program as one in which all types of students participate. Across all 60,000 households, these efforts led to an increase in test registration by 5%. More notably, test registration increased by 9% among children living in low-income districts, where average registration rates are half those in high-income districts. Making it easier for gifted students of all socioeconomic levels to access supportive educational programs is an important first step toward educational equity.
Securing financial aid dollars for CUNY students
That the U.S has a growing student debt crisis is not news—but many people don’t know that students leave billions in financial aid on the table each year when eligible students don’t file the federal financial aid application. Lacking funds for postsecondary education may cause financial hardships or even prevent some students from enrolling at all.
The BDT sent a series of email and text message reminders to enrolled students to increase financial aid renewal rates at three CUNY campuses, and saw steep increases at all of them: Borough of Manhattan Community College (38%), Bronx Community College (19%), and Hostos Community College (28%). Based on these results, CUNY is scaling this intervention to the majority of its two-year community colleges in the City—helping more students continue to receive the funds they need to attain higher education.
Building a more diverse fire department
The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) invested in a multi-year, multi-pronged effort to increase the diversity of its ranks so that its firefighters would better reflect the population they serve. As part of this initiative, the BDT worked with FDNY to conduct a randomized controlled trial to assess whether waiving filing fees for applicants would increase the diversity of applicants taking the qualifying examination.
Results showed that waiving the fee increased filing rates for FDNY’s new recruit applications by 36% overall. Without the fee waiver, black and female candidates filed half and two-thirds as many applications as other candidates, respectively. Waiving the fee increased filing rates by 84% among black candidates and 83% among female candidates. Broadening the candidate pool is a step toward building a more representative FDNY.
These examples are just a sampling of the ways in which behavioral design helped make New York City a bit more equitable by removing barriers blocking access to beneficial programs and services that can improve opportunities and lives. Of course, our work thus far is just one small part of a sustained and systemic effort needed to continue to promote true equity. To this end, the BDT will continue to work with NYC Opportunity to apply behavioral insights to government agencies, programs, and services to identify and address economic injustices and generate real social impact.