Behavioral Interventions for Labor-Related Programs

2014-2017
Prepared for
U.S. Department of Labor
behavioral interventions for labor-related programs

To improve working conditions and increase opportunities for American workers, agencies and programs within the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) must effectively engage with the people and organizations they serve. The designers of DOL programs—which address issues such as employment, training, unemployment insurance, occupational health and safety, protection of workers’ rights, and enforcement of labor laws—usually assume that people make decisions after fully considering their options and then act on those decisions. However, behavioral science shows that this assumption can often be wrong. People procrastinate and forget to do important tasks. Too many choices and small hassles can overwhelm them.


To help these programs better meet their goals, DOL is working with Mathematica and ideas42 to apply behavioral science principles to certain ongoing programs. Studies suggest that relatively modest changes to program materials, forms, or processes can greatly improve participant outcomes and program performance.


The three-year project has several goals:

  • Identify important challenges encountered within existing DOL programs for which behavioral solutions might be a good fit
  • Design low-cost, behaviorally informed program changes that address these problems
  • Design rigorous evaluations to assess the impacts of these changes
  • Rapidly test the behavioral solutions
  • Determine the results, inform the field, and recommend next steps

During year one, we conducted broad outreach activities within DOL, both to help build awareness about behavioral insights and to identify opportunities for possible behavioral trials. Based on the results of this outreach, we investigated in-depth opportunities within several federal agencies and state and local jurisdictions. Three trials have been implemented or are under way:


  1. We partnered with the W.E. Upjohn Institute and Michigan Works! to test the effectiveness of emails encouraging people to join and complete the state’s Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment pilot program.
  2. We worked with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to test whether changes to its citation process could increase employer responsiveness and reduce referrals to the OSHA National Office for costly enforcement and debt collection.
  3. We partnered with the Employee Benefits Security Administration and the DOL Human Resources Division to test whether targeted emails to DOL employees could encourage full participation in the federal Thrift Savings Plan.

The insights gained from this work are contributing to the growing body of evidence on the effectiveness of behavioral strategies. Behavioral solutions found to improve program outcomes and performance can inform the broad adoption of such principles within DOL and many other related programs nationwide.