Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Post mega conference

The first conference of the Financial Literacy Research Consortium was held last Thursday and Friday, November 18 and 19, in Washington, DC. The Financial Literacy Center was in charge of organizing it, and I just want to say how happy I am about the outcome. There are as many as five things I want to highlight about the conference.

David Rust, the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Retirement and Disability Policy at the Social Security Administration (SSA), opened the conference. As he described the work that SSA is doing to promote financial literacy, the image of a family doctor came to my mind. In the same way that a family doctor attends to his patients over time, caring for them at each stage of the life cycle, treating illness when necessary and preserving health when possible, so Social Security has been taking care of individuals, supporting them when they face problems such as disability. And with the financial literacy initiative, SSA is aiming to preserve and promote future financial stability by making sure that people are accumulating enough for retirement and are well equipped to make savvy financial decisions. SSA is ideally situated to promote financial literacy: it is an institution that is focused on the long term and that has the patience to wait for results in the long run. And investments in financial literacy will bear fruit in the long term, in line with the horizon of SSA.

Michael Barr, the Assistant Secretary for Financial Institutions at the U.S. Department of Treasury, delivered the keynote address at lunch. Michael is also a top law scholar and a faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School. He gave one of the most articulate descriptions of the role of financial literacy and financial regulation that I have heard. He generously interacted with the audience after his talk, and the many questions that were asked are a testament to the importance of the work he is doing. The Treasury Department is playing a significant leadership role in the field of financial literacy, and I am proud that Michael Barr is at the helm of many initiatives, including the important work of building the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Punam Keller, the Charles Henry Jones Professor of Management at the Tuck School of Business, delivered the closing talk. Punam is an expert on marketing strategy and social marketing and she is also the Marketing Director for the Financial Literacy Center. She described why financial literacy needs a marketing strategy and gave many tips on how social marketing can be of help in designing programs that are effective in influencing behavior. Punam is one of the most engaging, energetic, and brilliant speakers I have heard, and I am very happy to have been able to collaborate with her on so many projects.

The conference was large, with over 500 people registered. We designed the conference for interaction, and I believe we succeeded in engaging the audience. There were a lot of questions at the end of each session, and in the sessions I was able to attend, I learned as much from the questions that were asked as from the presentations. The agenda included an hour dedicated to visiting exhibit booths at which our team members displayed the products and projects they have been working on in the past year and interacted with conference attendees. I walked through the conference foyer during breaks and took stock of the many conversations generated by the topics presented at the conference sessions. A number of people approached me to say how much they enjoyed being involved in the conference. A sense of involvement and engagement is not a given at all conferences and one lesson I took away from this event is the value of creating a dialogue between the presenters and attendees. There is much to be gained from a conference at which everyone feels part of the conversation and everyone feels they have a chance for their voice to be heard.

Some of the programs that were presented speak of the creativity and ingenuity that is being used in designing financial literacy programs. One of the most popular presentations and exhibit booths was that of Doorways to Dreams (D2D). D2D has developed a casual video game, called Bite Club, to teach financial literacy. Bite Club, which is inspired by one of the most popular casual games of all time, Diner Dash, offers players a simulated experience in which they face the real-world tension between managing debt payments and current spending needs on the one hand, and saving for the long-term goal of retirement on the other. Players must manage a “day club” for vampires which demands they successfully pay off debt, meet current consumption needs, and save effectively for retirement. The core instructional design teaches the value of three important real world behaviors: (1) saving for retirement, (2) paying down debt, and (3) managing current consumption. In case you did not think there is a relationship between vampires and financial literacy, think again!

Let me turn now to the topic of food. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I believe food contributes to the success of any event. The food at the Ronald Reagan Center was as expected: breakfast was hearty, with plenty of bagels, muffins, juices, and strong coffee (much needed!). For lunch, we had to go for popular choices: salad as the appetizer and chicken as entrée. But the chocolate dessert was delicious, a tart with fresh raspberries on top of a good layer of melted chocolate. I gulped mine down and, since Michael Barr had to rush off at the end of his presentation, I ate part of his, too!

Presentations, keynote speeches, and photos of conference participants will be posted soon on our new web site http://www.financialliteracyfocus.org/

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Mega conference

I am writing this blog to make sure all my readers are aware of the First Annual Conference of the Financial Literacy Research Consortium. The conference, titled “New Insights and Advances in Financial Literacy: Translation, Dissemination, Change,” will be held on November 18 and 19, 2010, in Washington, D.C., at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

For those of you who do not know it, the Financial Literacy Research Consortium (FLRC) consists of three centers: (1) the Financial Literacy Center, which is a consortium of three institutions under the coordination of the RAND Corporation, (2) the Center for Financial Literacy at Boston College, and (3) the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The FLRC was established in October 2009 and is supported by the Social Security Administration.

We (the Financial Literacy Center) are hosting this conference and have been very busy preparing for this day-and-a-half event, which will bring together scholars from the Consortium to present their research and discuss how programs, educational products, and policies can best promote financial planning and financial security.

The conference is designed for interaction. For example, it include a series of workshops on innovative products, small seminars that focus on different stages of the life cycle, and a product fair at which participants can try out new educational products and interact with the developers. We are expecting as many as 400 attendees and the agenda features topics that span from video games that teach the perils of debt to building an effective web site for financial literacy to discussions of effective financial education programs. You can find the program and the link to the conference registration at http://www.rand.org/events/2010/11/18/.

A short description of the projects that our center has done in our first year and that will be presented at the conference is posted at http://www.rand.org/labor/centers/financial-literacy/projects/ .

I was attending the Pension Research Council’s Board meeting two weeks ago at the Wharton School, and one of the Board members asked Olivia and me: “So, what are the dates of your mega conference?” I was caught by surprise, but “mega conference” is a pretty good description of our upcoming event, and that’s how we’ve been referring to it ever since!

You are invited to attend the conference, or better, the mega conference! We hope to see you there.