This resource is a step-by-step guide for Federal labor program administrators and managers to improve their programs’ designs, performance, and outcomes using insights and strategies from behavioral science.

The Department of Labor Behavioral Interventions (DOL-BI) project was launched to explore the potential of using behavioral science to improve the performance and outcomes of DOL programs. It is sponsored by the DOL Chief Evaluation Office. The project team designed, implemented, and rigorously tested three behavioral trials in selected Labor programs. The project team developed behavioral interventions and executed trials in partnership with (1) the Employee Benefits Security Administration and the Department of Labor’s Human Resources division, to increase retirement savings, (2) the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to boost workplace safety, and (3) the Employment and Training Administration, to help unemployed workers become reemployed.

This playbook was developed to give program administrators and managers at DOL and other social programs an overview of how they can use insights from behavioral science to improve the effectiveness of their programs and services. The playbook is a step-by-step guide on how to identify behavioral problems and use strategies informed by behavioral science. In this playbook, the authors describe each of these steps and walk through them to show how DOL and other program administrators can use behavioral science to identify potential improvements to their policies and programs that can be executed with minimal additional resources. They assume basic familiarity with behavioral science, but not expertise.

The authors provide a brief introduction to behavioral science: Behavioral science studies how people make decisions and act in a complex world. It draws on decades of research in the social sciences to provide a more realistic model of how we make decisions and act in real life. Other approaches commonly assume that we consider all available information, weigh the pros and cons of each option, optimize our choices, and then reliably act on them. In practice, however, people often decide and act with imperfect information or fail to act altogether, even when they may want to. Behavioral interventions test whether aligning policies, programs, and products to these human tendencies can result in improved outcomes.

Major Findings & Recommendations

The Department of Labor Behavioral interventions project team used a six-step process to develop and test behavioral interventions in partnership with three DOL agencies. These six steps are:

1. Understand: Work with stakeholders to understand the problem you want to solve. It is important to do this before making changes to your program to ensure you target the right problem. The first step in the behavioral design process is to define your problem clearly and concretely. Strategies to identify the problem include: observe behavior, talk to users, understand multiple perspectives and types of users, and use data to explore patterns of user behavior.

2. Diagnose: Map out the behavioral bottlenecks or cognitive biases (predictable ways in which people seem to make reasoning errors) that may be contributing to the problem. Four common bottlenecks observed within Labor and other social programs are limited attention, forgetting, optimism bias, and procrastination.

3. Design: Design interventions that fit the program context, the available resources, and your diagnoses, and field-test them to ensure they work as intended.  Common steps in designing a behavioral solution include developing specifications, considering known solutions, fanning out and covering, and iterating and adapting.

4. Support: Work with frontline staff and managers to implement the intervention, providing support and troubleshooting for effective delivery with minimal disruption to normal activities. Ideally, implementation should be rolled out gradually, so you can begin to assess how your solution fits into the program’s overall workflow. You should be prepared to make adjustments to the design.

5. Test: Whenever possible, design a low-cost evaluation to find out whether the solution works. Collect and analyze existing data to understand short- and long-term results. Behavioral interventions are frequently tested using a variety of methods, such as random assignment.

6. Learn: Communicate findings clearly, concisely, and promptly, and continue to look for ways to make improvements. After designing, implementing, and testing your intervention to assess its effectiveness in solving the targeted problem, it is valuable to take a step back and reflect on what you learned. Did your intervention work? Which components worked well and which didn’t?