May 14, 2020

How Social Service Agencies Can Leverage Behavioral Science as Services Go Virtual

May 14, 2020

An earlier version of the map excluded Aroostook County, Maine (corrected 5/22/20).


As the spread of COVID-19 rapidly led to social distancing practices, social service agencies and similar organizations were faced with an urgent task: adapt their delivery of programs—programs designed around in-person interactions—to serve not only people already receiving assistance but also new applicants amid widespread income loss.

Programs across the spectrum of social services are transitioning to virtual delivery. Public housing authorities have turned to virtual services to continue offering as many services as possible. And administrative waivers for programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have allowed states to conduct interviews over the phone for people looking to access food assistance and to extend certifications for current program participants.

Even before COVID-19, decades of declining funding left state and local governments with limited capacity. And social service delivery agencies are strapped for time, serving current clients and new applicants, many of whom may be accessing benefits for the first time and are likely unfamiliar with assistance programs.

Recognizing these constraints, social service organizations can help low-income families during the pandemic by strengthening their online capacity with an eye toward user experience. Below are three insights, leveraging the principles of behavioral science and human-centered design, into how service providers can ensure people can successfully navigate online platforms.

1. Simplify online platforms

Government programs are complicated. As services become more virtual, online systems should be designed to be as clear as possible so people accessing them understand what they need to do to receive benefits.

Online systems can include visual elements that clarify what documents are needed and when and how to get from step to step. They can group similar questions together. And if they include steps that are particularly difficult to complete, they can provide users with helpful links or direct them to an FAQ page. Agencies can also test their sites for accessibility and to determine which elements to simplify.

2. Remove barriers to success

In behavioral science, choice architecture tells us the way we design decisionmaking contexts strongly influences the choices people make. The ability to think through those choices and make informed decisions becomes strained when people are faced with limited resources and time, a process called cognitive overload. Evidence also suggests the experience of poverty has its own cognitive burden.

Online services can accommodate these challenges by automating steps or removing some steps altogether. Answers to earlier questions can be carried forward when appropriate. Information that may have already been entered, like personal information, doesn’t need to be asked for again. To avoid choice overload—burnout from having to weigh multiple options at once—online systems should also keep the number of options for questions low.

3. Leverage communications

We are in a time of dizzying change. With shifting procedures during COVID-19, social service organizations can effectively leverage communications to help prevent people looking for assistance from falling off during the application process. They can use one-way text messages to send reminders about upcoming deadlines. They can also prompt implementation intentions by walking people looking for assistance through the specific, “when, where, and how” of progressing from step to step.

Why we need to address barriers to internet access for people living in poverty

Solutions that point to developing online capacity must also recognize another truth: internet access for people living in poverty varies considerably across the country. In the US, rates of internet access are generally higher in the Northeast and the West and lower in the South. In some counties, as few as one in three people living in poverty has internet access.

Map of internet access by county

Internet access also varies significantly by degree of urbanization. The pandemic has elevated the digital divide in the United States, particularly for rural America. Although county-level rural-urban measures hide some of the nuance of rural communities, they show metropolitan counties have higher rates of internet access for people living in poverty than nonmetropolitan or rural counties. The data also reveal significant equity gaps across race and ethnicity, gaps influenced by past discriminatory policies and practices.

Chart: access to internet by race

As traditional sources of free internet access—such as restaurants and libraries—closed, people have turned to parking lots to connect to signals that have been kept on. But this solution isn’t sustainable, which is why we need an assessment of America’s broadband infrastructure.

In many ways, the pandemic has highlighted the challenges people in poverty face. Even before COVID-19, it was difficult for low-income families to access the social safety net. And as we’ve seen during the pandemic, from long lines at food banks to dysfunctional unemployment insurance systems, those who need assistance the most continue to face access barriers to these programs.

The pandemic offers a unique opportunity to rethink our design and implementation of the social safety net. Service agencies can use this time to take a hard look at program requirements and strip back forms and documentation to the simplest possible versions still consistent with what’s required. Doing so would help low-income families access the benefits they desperately need during this unprecedented crisis.

PhotoAlto/Sandro Di Carlo Darsa/Getty Images

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