Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) Project


Behavioral science sheds light on human decision-making and behavior to better understand why people make the choices that they do. Designers of social services often expect that clients will understand their many choices and obligations, respond appropriately to notices, recognize the benefits of supportive services, and diligently follow through. When these expectations are not met, the response is often to impose enforcement mechanisms assuming that all clients are consciously choosing not to cooperate. Too often, designers do not take into account the obstacles people must overcome in order to access programs and services.  Designers also must navigate complex policy and regulatory requirements, finding ways to develop programs that follow applicable rules while still decreasing obstacles that may turn people away. Insights from behavioral science demonstrate that small hassles, in fact, create significant barriers that can prevent those in need of services from receiving them. People have limits on attention, are overly optimistic, and are subject to miscalculations in their reasoning. Findings about these “behavioral bottlenecks” can be used to improve the way programs are designed and implemented.

The Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) demonstration project is sponsored by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) of the Administration for Children and Families in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The project aims to apply behavioral insights to child support contexts, to develop promising behavioral interventions, and to build a culture of regular, rapid-cycle evaluation and critical inquiry within the child support community.

Agencies in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Washington have been awarded cooperative agreements to explore the application of behavioral science to their child support services.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The Behavioral Interventions for Child Support Services (BICS) project will allow eight grantees to explore how behavioral science can increase the effectiveness of their child support programs and build a culture of evaluation and critical inquiry in the child support community. OCSE will work with the grantees to apply successful interventions on the broadest scale possible. State child support agencies implement policies to establish child support orders, collect child support payments, reduce child support debt, and intervene when parents begin to struggle to make payments.

These grantees will work with the BICS Technical Assistance and Evaluation (TAE) team to identify problems within their child support programs. MDRC is leading the TAE team, in collaboration with MEF Associates and the Center for Policy Research. The TAE team is working with each grantee to properly define the problem(s) of interest, map the agency’s current processes, diagnose program breakdowns, and identify behavioral factors that may be contributing to these breakdowns. Using a diagnostic methodology to identify areas most amenable to light-touch, high-impact interventions, the TAE team will design and launch behavioral interventions and test their impact through experimentation.

The Washington State Division of Child Support was awarded an overarching evaluation grant from OCSE for technical assistance and evaluation services and subsequently contracted with MDRC to perform these functions.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The federal Office of Child Support Enforcement awarded cooperative agreements to the agencies in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Ohio, Texas, Vermont, and Washington. The Technical Assistance and Evaluation (TAE) team will provide grantees with guidance about building better programs and designing effective interventions, as well as provide educational workshops to grantees to apply techniques to their current and future initiatives. The TAE team is responsible for developing the project’s behavioral research methodology, supporting BICS grantees in applying that methodology, providing behavioral science expertise, conducting rapid-cycle evaluation of the grantees’ behavioral interventions, and producing content for dissemination.

BICS grantees will launch behavioral interventions that mostly use random assignment research designs to evaluate their effectiveness. Experiments will analyze near-term outcomes, such as program participation rates, which are quickly available and of interest to practitioners and administrators implementing social programs. Some grantees will likely engage in rapid-cycle evaluation, where initial analyses of findings from one round of testing quickly informs a next round of experimentation.