Integrating Design and Behavioural Insights to increase the take-up of an education savings program for Canadians living in low income

The Canada Learning Bond, a government education savings program providing a financial incentive to low income Canadians, turned to behavioural insights (BI) to tackle persistent low take-up. Following unsuccessful BI trials based on academic literature and expertise, we turned to Design. In a Government of Canada first, combining lessons learned from human centred design processes including stories from citizens and BI we developed outreach that significantly improved the take-up of the Bond.

Innovation Summary

Innovation Overview

The Canada Learning Bond (CLB) is a financial incentive administered by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) to encourage parents living on a low income to save for their children’s post-secondary education in Registered Education Savings Plans (RESPs). As of 2015, only 1 in 3 eligible children had received the CLB. Today, approximately 2 million children are eligible to receive the CLB. ESDC is running a program of research including iterative randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and qualitative design thinking approaches to understand the issue at greater depth and increase CLB take-up.

In 2016 ESDC conducted its first Behavioural Insights (BI) based RCT trial looking to increase the take up of the CLB through a promotional mailing to eligible families. The design of the letters was based on the latest and most relevant BI literature and was also peer reviewed by academics. Results from the trail were underwhelming. Though we were able to successfully conduct a RCT internal to government (a rare feat), many of the test letters statistically reduced take-up of the CLB when compared the standard letter used by the program in past outreach. The results suggested that the existing literature was insufficient to develop solutions to increase savings behaviours among Canadians living in low income.

In order to better understand the educational and financial decision-making of families living in low income we launched a Design project. Combining qualitative findings from a Design project to a quantitative BI project was a first for the Government of Canada. We engaged with 146 individuals through Interviews, workshops and ethnographic observations of service interactions. We engaged with parents and children (including Indigenous and rural populations), teachers, RESP providers, interdisciplinary stakeholders across government and community-based organizations. Iteratively co-creating research tools with our clients and other stakeholders ensured thorough qualitative data collection.

We were then able to design letters based on findings and insights from qualitative field research. Through this research numerous insights were gathered, including the ones outlined below. These insights/observations were translated into letter interventions which were tested in the trial to evaluate their effectiveness. For example:

Observation from qualitative research → lead to → Intervention/Hypothesis tested in the letters

Uncertain information in the letter (e.g., minimum or maximum CLB amounts that the child may receive) were highlighted by citizens as the most confusing parts of the letter. Moreover, older children are eligible for higher CLB amounts which they can claim retroactively (although most parents did not know about this). → lead to → Customizing the letter by presenting the exact amount of money that the child is eligible for (to date) could reduce confusion and increase CLB take-up.

An emphasis on ‘savings’ does not resonate well with all families living on a low income, as some may feel that they cannot afford to save. → lead to → Reducing the emphasis on savings in the letter could increase CLB take-up.

In order to test these insights, we developed a RCT targeting over 140,000 eligible children aged 12-13. Our previous trial found that this cohort, the oldest of eligible children, were also the least likely to sign up for the bond.

The findings from the trial were very positive. The letter which combined a the two insights described above improved the take-up of the CLB by 55% compared the standard letter (8.8% vs 5.7% take-up respectively). In practical terms, if we sent 10,000 standard letters we would expect 573 beneficiaries to sign up for the CLB. Combined, these families would receive $570,000 in education savings from the government. If instead we sent the letter informed by BI as well as the Design project, 878 beneficiaries would sign up. Combined, these families would receive $978,000 in education savings from the government.

The findings from this innovation have been implemented into the CLB communications and are now being received by eligible children.

The design project also provided a number of other insights that will be tested with other populations of CLB eligible children through RCTs.

Given the success of this mixed methods approach, we are considering it for a number of new challenges faced by the department.

Innovation Description

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Year: 2018
Level of government: National/Federal government


  • Diffusing Lessons - using what was learnt to inform other projects and understanding how the innovation can be applied in other ways

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