The art of designing a rational service for irrational taxpayers

Written by Gill Hitchcock on 8 January 2018 in Features

Dacorum Borough Council in Hertfordshire has redesigned its council tax service to better work with ‘the quirks of how we actually think’. Gill Hitchcock finds out more

Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images

New Year’s resolutions are notoriously difficult to keep. Changing your own behaviour can be hard. 

When it comes to changing the behaviour of service users, Andrew Marsh, Dacorum Borough Council’s lead officer for service redesign, believes that using insights from psychology can be very effective. 

By incorporating ‘behavioural insights’ into a project to digitise its council tax applications, Dacorum, an authority serving more than 150,000 citizens in Hertfordshire towns such as Hemel Hemsptead and Tring, has produced some surprising – and positive – results. And at very little cost.

“People don’t always behave rationally, but the problem with a lot of services is they are designed as though people do,” says Marsh. “They assume that if the incentives are right, people will find and do what we expect them to. That isn’t the way a lot of people work. By using behavioural insights, we can design services around the quirks of how we actually think.”

"The biggest benefit of in-house behavioural insights expertise is that you have a team that knows all the different departments of the council and is able to connect those dots up"
Andrew Marsh, Dacorum Borough Council

Paper-based and confusing, Dacorum’s old council tax application process was ripe for reform. The first stage was obvious: put it all online. Additionally, however, the council used behavioural insights to simplify the process, to connect residents with other services and to create a more positive image of the authority itself.

A complex form covering every eventuality was split into sections for different scenarios. For example, questions relating to landlords, such as updates on empty properties, now only appear on forms relevant to them, and not on the 92% of forms completed by new tenants and owner-occupiers. The outcome has been a quicker and more accurate process – and an end to re-typing by council staff.

Behavioural insights suggest that, if people declare at the outset that what they will say is going to be truthful, they are more likely to be honest. So, Dacorum shifted its ‘declaration that the information is true’ statement to the start of the application. 

Since its launch in May 2017, the online application has been through a process of continuous development. The following month, the council started to use it as an opportunity to encourage residents to make changes in behaviour.

Ringing the changes
When people go through one change in their lives, they are more likely to change other things too, behavioural insights show. 

“Moving house is a really big one, and people pick up and lose all sorts of habits around a change like that. We want to use it as a chance to reinforce positive behaviours,” says Marsh.

“An exciting development is that if people tell us they are a tenant, or an owner-occupier, they get taken through to a screen which will say ‘thanks for filling in the details’ and where they can sign up for one of the local sports centres.”

From when the offer went live in June until the end of 2017, nearly 300 people who had just moved into the borough signed up for a sports centre card while they were registering for council tax. In addition, more than 350 people signed up to receive Dacorum’s email newsletter, telling them what is going on locally.

The new council tax application also provides residents with an opportunity to register to vote, apply for a parking permit, housing benefit, or council tax support, and find out about bin, large item, and garden waste collections.

“We also signpost people towards the county council for some other services, to the parish councils, [and to] local transport services, and we give them a link to sign up for a GP and dentist. Also, we direct them to places where they can change the address on their driving licence, and to Royal Mail redirect. Everything we think they might need is there in one place.”

“If you want to affect human behaviour, you might want to think about these four basic principles: make it as easy as possible; attractive; social; and timely"
David Halpern, Behavioural Insights Team

Marsh thinks this means Dacorum is getting off on the right foot with new residents, because their first impression of the local authority is of a helpful organisation.

The Cabinet Office has been using behavioural insights for some time. It has seen this as a way of shaping government policy and services. Its erstwhile Behavioural Insights Team, unofficially known as the ‘nudge unit’, is now a ‘social purpose company’, which is co-owned by its employees and Nesta. 

“If you want to affect human behaviour, you might want to think about these four basic principles,” says the organisation’s chief executive David Halpern. “Make it as easy as possible, attractive, social, and timely – and decide when is the right moment to do this.”

Keen to promote behavioural insights projects, the Local Government Association has been offering councils up to £25,000 to complete a behavioural insight trial and project. 

Marsh believes that the usual approach to implementing behavioural insights is to outsource this work to consultancies. Meanwhile, he operates with a small internal consultancy team comprised of specialists in digital delivery, performance measurement, an intern and himself.

“The biggest benefit of in-house behavioural insights expertise is that you have a team that knows all the different departments of the council and is able to connect those dots up,” says Marsh. “If there are any snags, we are always about to help and see those changes through.”

Marsh is satisfied that all this has worked out well: “Other than staff time, it has cost us nothing. We are getting new residents off on the right foot, and reducing the number of errors we have to deal with. It’s been extremely effective.” 

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