The Behavioral Insights to Advance Self-Sufficiency-Next Generation (BIAS-NG) project, sponsored by the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, uses principles of behavioral science in an effort to improve human services program design and outcomes. BIAS-NG partners with state and local agencies to diagnose behavioral barriers to program success, design interventions to address those barriers, and test the efficacy and cost efficiency of those behaviorally informed interventions relative to status quo service delivery. In Washington state, BIAS-NG worked with the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). DSHS administers Washington’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program and the associated WorkFirst (WF) program.
Working closely with DSHS, BIAS-NG identified behavioral barriers that TANF clients face to successful participation in WF activities. DSHS provides a robust set of participation options to WF clients through other agencies with whom they contract to provide these WF activities. The WF activities are designed to help clients obtain jobs of interest (Job Search activity track), access education and skill training (Education and Training activity track), remove barriers to employment (Resolving Issues activity track), build language skills (Limited English Proficiency activity track), and gain work experience (Work Experience activity track). The goal of WF in the state of Washington is to support clients to become independent of public financial support, and participating in WF activities is viewed as key to achieving this financial independence.
However, approximately half of all TANF clients assigned to a WF activity never attend their first meeting or their WF Activity orientation, limiting their access to WF services that are hypothesized to increase clients’ likelihood of securing gainful employment and be in a position to no longer need TANF cash grants. Disengagement at this step in enrollment contributes to clients exiting TANF. Possible trajectories of clients who disengage after assignment to a WF activity are that they find employment on their own, or lose benefits for lack of participation. In both cases, clients may lose out on an opportunity to obtain new or strengthen existing skills that could help them to obtain and sustain employment of interest. This disengagement may also contribute to clients cycling back on to TANF within a short period.
To determine the assignment of an appropriate WF activity, WF Program Specialists conduct a Comprehensive Evaluation (CE) with clients in a one-on-one meeting to thoroughly assess clients’ resources and supports, aspirations, skills, and barriers to employment. At the culmination of the CE, WF Program Specialists prepare an Individual Responsibility Plan (IRP) which is a “living contract” through which WF Program Specialists build and update a customized plan for clients’ participation in WF activities based on their situation. Participation plans include the required number of participation hours in and referrals to WF activities providers, in addition to consequences of non-participation. Clients are required to make contact with their WF activity provider within 30 days of assignment and document hours of participation on a regular basis to continue to receive TANF benefits.
During the first phase of the BIAS-NG project, identified as the behavioral diagnosis and design phase, the research team became more knowledgeable about Washington state’s TANF WF program and enrollment processes, focusing attention on attrition between the referral to WF activity providers and participation in these WF activities. To conduct the investigation, the research team interviewed clients, staff, and administrators; observed interactions of interest (group DSHS orientation, CE between WF Program Specialists and clients, and WF activity orientation); and reviewed materials used in enrollment processes. The research team observed that the WF enrollment process was long and contained a lot of information, and that a primary message conveyed is that DSHS wants clients to obtain employment. Data showed the Job Search activity track was the most common referral and had low completion rates. Staff interviews suggest that Job Search is the default referral for people determined eligible to get a job. The hypothesized behavioral barriers based on these observations were that: 1) incoming clients receive and share a lot of important information at once, and therefore may not share all relevant information, or fully process and recall participation requirements and how to access available resources intended to support participation; and 2) the participation plan and planning process could be interpreted as having a contractual and transactional tone, which may not motivate clients to share all relevant information or participate in available activities.
BIAS-NG designed, implemented, and tested an intervention to address the behavioral barriers hypothesized to contribute to drop-off between assignment to WF activities and participation in those activities. The intervention asked WF Program Specialists to use a “Blueprint” planning card with clients that they would fill out during the individual assessment interview (i.e., the CE). The aim of the card was to provide clients with a place to 1) articulate and write down goals to accomplish in the WF program, and 2) to help them plan and identify the steps they would need to take to attend the assigned orientation for their WF activity. In addition, WF Program Specialists were provided a set of flashcards to help demonstrate each of the WF activity options. The intervention was designed to address behavioral bottlenecks in the enrollment process by more fully engaging TANF recipients during the CE in service of motivating them to attend the agreed-upon activity as delineated in their IRP. More participant engagement in the enrollment process might change the quality or quantity of information exchanged during the CE and outcome of the IRP. This exploratory hypothesis is measured by the percent of people referred to the Job Search activity track – considered the default referral for eligible applicants deemed by WFPS as work-ready—versus other activity tracks. The long-term goal was to increase the number of TANF clients who successfully exit TANF, measured by reduced “cycling” (i.e., churn) within 7-12 months of case opening.
For the impact evaluation, clients were randomly assigned to be served by staff trained to deliver the intervention (behavioral group) or assigned to staff delivering status quo services (standard group). In addition to the impact study analysis, BIAS-NG will conduct implementation and cost analyses to document how the intervention was delivered and at what cost.