Removing sludge from early years services

The power of simplification

  • 30th November 2022
  • 4 minute read

Much of the behavioural science literature focuses
on how individuals behave. But what about the
behaviour of the systems those individuals interact
with? We don’t have to look too far for examples
of laborious government systems, from arranging
routine health check appointments (Madrian, 2014)
to signing up for childcare subsidies (Wood, 2021).

Of course checks are necessary to maintain the integrity of policies – to ensure that those who are not eligible don’t gain access ahead of those who are. But when those checks become overburdensome so that some eligible individuals give up, then perhaps it is time to rethink the system. In this article, we explore how systems impact families. We argue that simplifying systems for parents is necessary to ensure their children get the best start
in life.

Sludge”, put simply, means excessive friction (Sunstein, 2018). It is often compounded by
common behavioural biases like present bias – we like to receive rewards sooner rather than later (O’Donoghue & Rabin, 1999); inertia – we tend to stick with the status quo (Sautua, 2017); choice overload – when faced with too many options, we become indecisive (Scheibehenne et al., 2010); and optimism bias – we overestimate the likelihood of positive events occurring (Sharot, 2011). Successful corporations are very good at eliminating sludge from their systems: they know that when actions are easy, we’re more likely to do them, and repeat them (Thaler, 2019). This basic premise is well illustrated by the fact that you can purchase a baby monitor on Amazon with one click.

“More than at any other time in their lives, parents of young children are less likely to be able to deal with sludge.”

More than at any other time in their lives, parents of young children are less likely to be able to deal with sludge. They are often sleep deprived, juggling work and household responsibilities and dealing with everything that goes with having a young child, from stomach bugs to temper tantrums. This can mean that they have less “cognitive bandwidth” or mental energy to handle lengthy or complicated processes.

And for parents facing economic or social hardship, cognitive bandwidth may be further stretched by the more immediate pressures they face day to day: ensuring they have enough food to eat, managing debt arrears, or an unstable housing situation (Mullainathan & Shafir, 2013). Such immediate demands rightly mean that other, less urgent matters are postponed. Recent research suggests that parents facing “scarcity” – whether financial instability or a scarcity of social connections, resulting in loneliness – were more likely to miss information sent to them by their child’s school during the pandemic, for example about online learning (Kalil et al., 2022). This was not because they weren’t interested in their child’s education, but because they were focused on what they needed to do to get by each day.

Aside from the time and financial costs of sludge, there may also be implications for our mental health. We’ve all experienced the frustration of not being able to complete a process because we didn’t have the right information to hand, we didn’t understand the form, or we simply didn’t have enough time. This may be particularly draining for the most vulnerable parents in our society.

Simplifying processes to reduce sludge

What can be done to address sludge in systems that parents engage with? We often mistakenly think that giving parents more information will help, when in fact the opposite is almost always true. Simplifying processes from start to finish can go a long way in
supporting families. For example:

• reducing navigation time and the number of clicks required to complete an online action (like locating the child benefit claim form on a website)
• ensuring processes can be completed in one go (not requiring parents to wait for confirmation before they can proceed to the next step), and
• always using clear and concise language.

Many local and national governments are already making strides to simplify their systems. Some examples from the UK include:

Pre-allocating appointments Nesta, in collaboration with City of York Council,
redesigned how appointments are scheduled for routine health and development reviews offered to parents when their child turns 2 years old. Previously, parents would call up and book an appointment after receiving an invitation letter. In one area of York city, officials piloted preallocating appointments so that parents only called up if they wished to change or cancel their appointment. Initial results suggest that most children given a pre-allocated appointment were seen in the month following their invitation, whereas children whose parents were required to call up were not seen for 1–2 months. This may be down to parents not booking promptly when they receive the invitation letter due to the many other pressures they face.

Using checklists In partnership with HM Revenue & Customs, the UK’s national tax authority, the Behavioural Insights Team (aka ”the Nudge Unit”) tested whether including a checklist of requirements to apply online for “Tax-Free Childcare” in the letter sent to eligible parents improved application rates above those obtained from a letter providing general information about the scheme. Findings show that the checklist boosted the number of completed applications by 10% (HM Revenue & Customs, 2018).

“Simplifying processes from start to finish can go a long way in supporting families.”

These examples illustrate how smart design that considers existing demands on parents’ bandwidth can translate into tangible benefits, such as more children getting timely healthcare and more families receiving the funding they are entitled to. Going a step further by requiring government agencies to conduct “sludge audits” to quantify and catalogue the cost of friction in administrative processes could help to highlight just how much time parents spend trying to navigate systems – time that could otherwise be spent with their child (Sunstein, 2018).

The changes we’re suggesting are relatively minor and should be implementable at minimum cost. We urge all government agencies to identify what small changes they can make in their existing processes to reduce sludge for the benefit of children and families.

All references can be found in the PDF version of this article.

Fionnuala O'Reilly Principal Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)

Fionnuala O’Reilly is a Principal Advisor at the Behavioural Insights Team, London, and is responsible for the Early Years Education brief. She is currently seconded to Nesta until spring 2023, where she works with the “A Fairer Start” mission team as the Lead Behavioural Scientist.

Louise Bazalgette Deputy Director of Nesta’s A Fairer Start mission

Louise Bazalgette is Deputy Director of Nesta’s “A Fairer Start” mission in the UK, which aims to close the school readiness gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Previously Louise worked in Nesta’s Alliance for Useful Evidence, on establishing the What Works Centre, What Works for Children’s Social Care. Before she joined Nesta, Louise worked at the NSPCC and Demos.

Topics Behavioural Science Children Health Integrated services Parenting Parents Policy Public administration

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