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​How can programme take-up be encouraged?

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One of the most frustrating challenges for those implementing a new policy is a low uptake, where eligible individuals or business do not come forward for support on offer. Even during the pandemic, places have told us that some of their programmes are not reaching the people who might benefit from them the most. Last week we published a review of the evidence about how to spread the word and encourage those eligible to take advantage of support.

Why might take-up be low?

Take-up can be low for a range of reasons. The most obvious example is a lack of awareness of the support available. People may not know that the programme exists or that they are eligible. Others may be aware of support available, but don’t know how to apply. They may think that the costs of applying outweigh the perceived benefits of receiving support. Eligibility rules can be complicated or bureaucratic, which can act as a barrier to applying. Another potential reason might be the social stigma attached to applying for or receiving support.

Please note, we are assuming that the support being offered is of value to the target audience! That should have been dealt with earlier in the policy development process, and we do not address it in this evidence review.

What can we do to increase take-up?

Our new toolkit looks at the evidence on increasing take-up of programmes. The evidence all comes from the UnitedS and covers policies targeted at low-income households, including food stamps, tax credits, cash transfers to disabled people, and unemployment insurance.

The evidence finds that sending a letter, notice, or email explaining a programme and its benefits can increase take-up by between 10 and 20 percentage points. The wording of a letter seems to matter too – there is evidence that reducing complexity of the language within the letter can help. Some studies find that the impact of letters on take-up varies across different groups.

These findings are backed up by other, similar studies, for business support policies. The Behavioural Insights Team has undertaken a number of pilots exploring how to encourage take-up of business support schemes, which have found similar findings. And we previously found that text message reminders can also have an impact on attendance.

The evidence also suggests that offering assistance – for example, help to complete the application form – as well as information can be more effective in increasing take-up than information alone. But, as that is more resource intensive, it can be less cost-effective.

What are the lessons for policymakers?

It is worth thinking early about how to encourage the take up of policies which are aimed at the most difficult to reach people. Providing information is a low cost, effective way of increasing take-up and we encourage policymakers to make use of this. As the improvement in take-up often varies across different groups, policymakers should monitor what impact information is having on take-up and explore other options – including providing assistance – for those groups where it is making less of a difference.

What next?

One of the main challenges in local economic growth is that we need to expand the evidence base. More often than we would like, we don’t know whether a policy is effective – or we lack detail on what features of a programme make it effective. For example, are short courses more effective than long courses in helping individuals get back into work? The only way to address this is to do more evaluation – and encouraging take-up will be critical to the success of these evaluations. We encourage those undertaking evaluations of local economic growth policies to be making use of the evidence on increasing take-up.

It would also be good to see more trials being undertaken on what works in increasing take-up. The evidence currently focuses on a narrow range of policies (mainly around benefits for low income households and business support). It would be good to see trials undertaken in other local economic growth policy areas, of other approaches to increasing take-up and of what works better in different scenarios (for example, comparing impact of emails, letters or text messages). What Works Growth can provide support to design and deliver evaluations of local economic growth policies – and we encourage anyone that is interested in pursuing an evaluation of this type to get in touch.