BI podcast transcription: Barking and Dagenham (2021)

(TC: 00:00:10) 

Rhian Gladman: Hi, everyone, and welcome to the latest episode of the Nudges for Social Good podcast from the local government association. My name is Rhian Gladman and I manage the behaviour change programme here at the LGA. So, those of us who listen to us regularly would know that our aim at the podcast is to demystify behaviour change and behavioural insights and help councils to actually take the practical lessons from other council projects and implement them in your own council. So, today, I am joined by a good friend of the Nudges for Social Good podcast, Tim Pearse, who people will remember who listen to this regularly. He was the first guest we featured on the podcast on our very first episode. Great to have you back with us, Tim. How are you?


(TC: 00:00:57) 

Tim Pearse: Thanks, Rhian. Hi, everyone. Yes, very good, thanks. It's brilliant to be back. Yes, really excited to, sort of, talk a bit more about what I started to talk about last time, really.


(TC: 00:01:07) 

Rhian Gladman: Excellent stuff. Excellent stuff. So, yes, out to other guests there, once you've been on once, you know, we're always happy to have you back, so we can hear about the next steps of how your projects have progressed. So, excellent stuff, Tim. Do you want to start by setting out what is your job title, at the council, what's your role?


(TC: 00:01:24) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, of course, yes. So, it's behavioural science by name and behavioural science by nature. So, my full title these days is Behavioural Science and Service Design Lead, because I'm the behavioural scientist, but I also have a couple of service designers working for me.


(TC: 00:01:45) 

Rhian Gladman: Great stuff, great stuff, and yes, over to you, really, just to set out the project that you're going to talk to us about. I know, you know, you've been working on a more proactive approach to local residents, to encourage payment of council tax, and this is something that a lot of councils are really interested to learn more about. So, really, over to you.


(TC: 00:02:03) 

Tim Pearse: So, to give a little bit, to place me in the organisation, so I work for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, and I sit in the Insight and Innovation hub, which has a data part of the team, full of data scientists, and me, which is, sort of, the innovation support, kind of, bit of the team. So, we're always really interested in how the, sort of, well, data science and behavioural science and service design all mix together. I think that this work has, kind of, combined all of those, a little bit, and so, yes, as I mentioned in the intro, the thing I thought might be interesting would be to revisit all the things I was talking about in the first podcast. So, again, if people listened to it, I was getting very excited about debt and how this was a, kind of, early indicator for need, how a lot of people that are in debt are in debt to the council. So, we know who they are, and a lot of councils will have the capacity to support people in debt, which (a) can prevent them having poor outcomes in relation to their debt, you know, court and bailiffs and those nasty things, but also, you know, it seems to us, debt also drives other types of demand into the council, potentially compounding problems with children's or adults' social care and things like that. So, as you mentioned, Rhian, we're very interested in whether we can be a bit more proactive in our debt response. We have a council tax team and we do, you know, until recently, did council tax just like most other places, which is, you miss a payment, you get a first reminder, and then, a final reminder, and then, it's court, kind of thing.


You know, with community solutions, where we have a, kind of, single front door for the council, we wanted to connect our debt advice service with our, let's say, council tax service, in that we know when people are slipping into debt, are there some parts of that group that we could proactively help? Not get them into court, you know, sort them out, and then, they can get on with their lives and, hopefully, never have to go to court or anything like that, basically. So, the work that we did started earlier this year. So, as I'm sure everyone will be aware, much debt collection was paused in 2020, sorry, in 2019, because of the pandemic. In 2020, early 2020, we started collecting again, and so, the question, you know, is, like, how do we do that? We had a lot of people, many more people in debt to the council than usual, and I guess, from a, kind of, behavioural science perspective, my sense was that a lot of people would just be burying their heads in the sand. So, a lot of people would've been adversely affected. They would maybe be used to getting reminders from the council, but maybe not. They will not have had the money to pay the entire balance, so many people would be on final reminder stage, they'd lost their right to pay by instalments, so they've got quite a big bill, they can't pay it, and feel a bit hopeless about it, I imagined, and so, weren't picking up the phone. Were just, sort of, sitting on it, basically, which is not a good place to be.


(TC: 00:05:49) 

Rhian Gladman: So, Tim. Sorry, just to jump in.


(TC: 00:05:51) 

Tim Pearse: Yes. Please do, please.


(TC: 00:05:52) 

Rhian Gladman: So, in terms of the behavioural insight there, is this, you know, you say there was a hunch there that that might have been going on. Is it almost, sort of, an avoidance? People get into an avoidance of a problem, if it's too big? Is that what behavioural science is telling us?


(TC: 00:06:08) 

Tim Pearse: Yes. Exactly, exactly, and, you know, if a problem seems too big to confront, it's easy to ignore it. So, you know, when there's, kind of, some interesting evidence around people who have, for example, a range of debts. When they get a letter through the door, they, sort of, often don't even open it. It's actually worse to open it than to just chuck it straight in the bin. So, as you say, there's something about the, kind of, avoidance and parking it to one side and forgetting about it that feels easier in the short-term than actually facing up to the, you know, potentially difficult decisions or ramifications of those debts, basically.





(TC: 00:07:01) 

Rhian Gladman: Okay. So, your original challenge, the behavioural challenge there is to take a proactive approach to encouraging people to, earlier on, sort of, upstream, to pay their debts. So, how did you go about gathering the insights and the research for this project?


(TC: 00:07:19) 

Tim Pearse: Yes. So, basically, the first thing was to look at, you know, how did this group of people, who are in debt to us, you know, on the council tax side, compared to, kind of, previous, people who were in debt to us in normal times? There was a, you know, it, sort of, is, like, you have the people who are there in usual times, plus a whole set of other people, and it is that group that we, kind of, want to target. So, what we could do was we could cut that cohort and target the people we wanted and opted for people with, kind of, lower levels of debt, that had been in more regular payments, pre-pandemic, because our hypothesis was that, you know, those people would be able to set up a payment plan. Again, if you're assuming people have their heads in the sand, you know, I think that is because they don't know that you can set up a payment plan for £20 a week, if you really want to, and you can't afford anything else, right? People just see this big bill for, you know, £1,000 or whatever, and think that's the whole thing. So, we did some work to look at a cohort, we selected which bit of the group we wanted to target, and ultimately, you know, the way we reached out to people, it didn't contain specific behavioural science techniques. We didn't, sort of, use loss aversion or a particular type of framing or anything, but it's more the fact that we, kind of, just wanted a more human approach. So, if, again, my hypothesis was that if you're in that situation, you know, letters with red ink will definitely work for some people, but for a lot, it also won't, and actually, if we can target a group of people that we think a, sort of, more, kind of, you know, human relational approach would work with, we think we'd get a better response.


So, again, that's who we were targeting. We designed the approach in that way, so it was a very, very light-touch conversation of, you know, 'So, how are you doing? How are you doing?' First of all, and then, again, kind of, trying to frame it not as, 'You owe us money, where is it?' but think about, these were people, basically, at court stage. So, you know, you're about to be summonsed or you have been summonsed in some cases, 'Would you like to speak to someone on the council tax side about that? Did you know about payments plans?' You know, and there would be a bit of a wider conversation as well to, sort of, test, kind of, vulnerability. So, if people, as I say, the focus of this pilot was around getting people who looked like they probably could set up a payment plan to do so, if possible, but you're always going to encounter people with large needs, and so, again, very much if that was encountered, that we could, sort of, send those people directly to the support they needed, be it debt advice, you know, adult intake. So, that was a part of it as well. So, there's this, kind of, big supportive element to it as well.


(TC: 00:10:34) 

Rhian Gladman: So, the conversations, so, your residents services team were contacting residents. So, did you provide some training for them, before that conversation, before they started making those proactive calls?


(TC: 00:10:50) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, we did, and everyone said, 'Right, okay, right, can you write us a full script please?' That seemed like a good idea for five minutes, until you actually sit down and try and write a script that feels human and relational, and then, you quite quickly realise you're doing it all wrong. So, we didn't, actually. We, basically, you know, so, the team we worked with, we worked with a range of teams, but the team that did the outreach was a team that had been set up, as a result of the pandemic, to do, kind of, outreach to vulnerable residents, and so, it was the perfect team to do these kinds of calls. So, they'd already been calling people, seeing if they needed, you know, support with food or whatever, and so, actually, all we did was go to their meeting, explain what we were trying to do, which was, the situation these people are in around council tax debt, and that we wanted to do a proactive outreach. And then, we just said, like, just have a conversation with them. You know, see if they want anything we can offer, and if not, that's totally fine, and that'll be the end of the conversation. So, and I think people got that, that's the nice thing. That was the really nice thing about it. People were like, 'Yes, that's makes loads of sense. You can just interact with someone, there's nothing I have to say. We can offer them help, see how the conversation goes.' If, you know, they say yes, we can put them through to, again, if they can set up a payment plan, it would go through to council tax, but if it sounds like, a lot of people had stories, exactly as you'd expect, of losing their job, that kind of thing, and where debts had built up to quite significant levels, again, we could pass them to our, kind of, team that supports people with debts.


(TC: 00:12:39) 

Rhian Gladman: Yes. I think that's really interesting, isn't it? Almost that qualitative learning that came out really early on through those conversations with the officers there, actually, rather than that scripted approach, to be clear on, 'These are our outcomes. You guys know how to speak to residents, you do this everyday,' and they, you know, sort of, carry on with it, and they felt empowered to be able to have that conversation rather than, as you say, maybe lots of training, lots of time, lots of detail, which may not have added to the confidence or the clarity of those conversations, I think. That's interesting for maybe future behavioural challenges the council would like to work on, to take that approach forward, potentially.


(TC: 00:13:22) 

Tim Pearse: I definitely think so, and I think, you know, since joining a council, I've become increasingly interested in relational working. It makes so much more sense and if I'm honest, I think the behavioural science community probably doesn't pay enough attention to it. So, I think it's a really nice thing to, kind of, add into the mix. Having said that, you know, one of the things that I think we would consider in future is whether there are really specific, just a couple of really specific bits of information to get across. So, not a script as such, but we may have even been too, kind of, light-touch. So, you know, maybe just ensure that they know that they're heading towards court, for example. Maybe that's something that, should feature as part of any conversation, just so people are fully aware of what's going on in their life, sort of thing. So, the risk, I think we almost had the risk where it was a really nice chat, and residents found it great, and staff found it great, but the only slight downside was, sometimes, I think people didn't quite realise how serious it was. So, I'm glad we're on that side of things, rather than being too harsh, because the whole point of it was not to be, but I think, yes, as we move on, there is something about how we definitely include, sort of, the stuff like that, to make sure people are getting a full picture.


Tim Pearse: So, that was the cohort and, you know, as many of your listeners will agree with, we wanted to test whether this approach works, because that's what we have to do, especially when money's so tight. So, once we had that group of people, we, kind of, split it in two, and had a group that we were going to contact, and a group that we weren't going to contact. As I say, these were people at summons stage. So, they were headed to court. So, yes, what we did is our residents conversation team made the calls in about a week. So, they attempted calls for, I think, around just over 200 people, 214 people, I think, and so, I should just say that these are just numbers we had on our council tax system. So, a lot of people, you know, don't have numbers or have incorrect numbers and stuff like that. So, you know, there's always quite a big drop-off.


(TC: 00:15:56) 

Rhian Gladman: Is that phone numbers? So, in terms of accurate contact numbers.


(TC: 00:16:00) 

Tim Pearse: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. So, it's just, you're just relying on stuff that people have given you, maybe a few years ago. So, there's always a big drop-off of the number that you actually manage to get hold of. So, of those 200 we tried to reach, we got through to about 32, percent, sorry, 32%. So, just, you know, approaching 70 people, which felt good, because I think random calls in the middle of your day, I think 30% felt okay, and the majority of the people that we spoke to were up for, kind of, talking about money, basically. You know, again, you could imagine a world in which they'll say, 'Just leave me alone. You know, you've sent me lots of letters already, why are you calling?' but actually, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and the vast majority of people said, 'Yes, it'd be good to have a conversation about that.' Now, one thing we did get wrong, that was a clear lesson learned, is that we didn't get the staff ratios between the people making the calls and the council tax team quite right. So, as they were sending people over, they were almost too successful. They were sending too many people over, and then, the council tax guys didn't have enough people to answer all the phones quick enough. So, we actually lost a few people that had been willing to, sort of, set up a payment plan, in our process, which was quite a big lesson learned. Where we got to in the end was that 40 of our residents did speak to the council tax department and 30 of them ended up making a payment or setting up a payment plan. So, that's roughly 14% of all the people we called ending up making some sort of payment, which again, felt kind of positive, given that we've sent them lots of letters with red ink and are about to take them to court, basically.


So, you'd have thought that you might've reached the end of the road and that you only have people who really aren't going to pay, at that point. So, again, in my view, that felt positive.


(TC: 00:18:18) 

Rhian Gladman: On that point around the unintended consequences of increasing that demand, and again, that is a lesson that, you know, everyone setting up their own behavioural insights project, it's one to be aware of it, isn't it? That you may increase demand into a service, through a really successful intervention, and 14%, I would say, is a very successful intervention, given that a lot of the nudges we see in local government, we're looking at a 2% or 3% either increase or decrease, depending on what we want to achieve. So, what was the lesson learnt, and what would you do differently, if you were starting that again, with the benefit of hindsight?


(TC: 00:18:57) 

Tim Pearse: So, I think that, you know, it was one of those things that was, kind of, difficult to avoid that, because, basically, your proposition to the council tax department is, 'We're going to try and get more people to pay,' and they say, 'Great,' and then, you say, 'Can you have someone sitting by the phone for a week, ready to take some calls from this team over here, at just random points, basically?' And they say, 'That's definitely less great.' So, we managed to do it, so we didn't have just people just completely idle on the council tax side. So, you know, they were doing their jobs, but could take calls, as they came in, without, kind of, having to just do nothing, but the cost was, they didn't have enough capacity. So, we only had one of them, basically. So, they would then have a twenty minute call, where they had to set up a payment plan and reschedule the payments and all that kind of stuff, but in that time, our other team might've already tried to send someone through, and given that that person was on the phone, it was never going to go. So, the lesson learned was, if you've got tonnes of people in your council tax department who are (willing to do this) have more, because, you know, the council tax people will probably end up spending longer on the phone with the people than the outreach team, but actually as we're actually in the middle of our second pilot now, which I'll talk about in a minute, but the thing that we're trying to do now is have the outreach come from the team we think is the right team first time. So, that people who we think are going to be able to make a payment will just get a call from or a text or a call from the council tax team straight away. So, there's none of that, you know, loss of people through the system and bouncing around the system, which of course, everyone hates, and I totally understand, but it was, sort of, just what we had to do for this time. So, yes, I think that's where we're headed with that.


(TC: 00:21:03) 

Rhian Gladman: Yes, to remove that friction from the process, but yes, we just want to make it as easy as possible don't we, for people? So, as limited steps as we can.


(TC: 00:21:15) 

Tim Pearse: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. It's all about friction. You know, 25% of the people who said, 'Yes, let's talk about money,' we lost in our phone system, which is a terrible shame, really. So, exactly as you say, it's all about friction. Let's make it as easy as possible, because also, it, kind of, detracts from the whole first call, which is all, 'Hey, how're you doing? We want to help,' the being put through and being on hold on stuff, very quickly, you can see people being like, 'Oh, you know, that felt like a new approach for all of five minutes. Now, it feels like the usual, kind of, like, you know, call waiting to the council tax department,' which is a bit of a shame, but yes, as I say, there are ways to think about it differently, I think. So, that was positive, as I said. So, that was the, kind of, immediate outcome of the people we called. As I said, we wanted to measure it against a control group. So, we took a look at the, sort of, payments made in the control group as well. We did this, kind of, straight after the trial, so one week after, and as well as two months after the trial, and the two month period was picked because that would've been at the point where everyone had been through court, and whatever would've happened at court would've happened. So, what we see, one week after the trial, is that the people we called were roughly twice as likely to have set up a payment or made a payment than the people we didn't call. So, it's identical sets of people. So, that's really positive, and then, what we see in the two months after the trial, is that gap has narrowed. So, the court does make people pay, and what we see is around, kind of, 50% more people have made a payment, out of the people we called, than the people we didn't.


So, the gap narrows, but even two months after, once we've got all the court stuff done, the people who we call are still significantly more likely to have made a payment, which is really positive. Then, what we want to do is, sort of, do a little bit of, kind of, like, well, you know, is that good? Is that value for money? Should we be doing more of it? That's always, you know, an important question. So, we did some back of the envelope type calculations for the cost of the intervention and got to, sort of, just over about £1,000 for both the outreach and the time of the council tax colleagues, on the phones. So, you know, definitely a bit of investment there, but looking at, kind of, what that generated, it still feels like good value for money. So, basically, people who got the call were, again, the amount of their arrangements, so if you look at the total arrangements made, so the numbers I just presented were numbers of arrangements, but we also wanted to look at value of arrangements. So, if you look at value of arrangements, again, relative to the initial debt level, people who we called were twice as likely to be paying, well, were paying off twice as much of their debt as the people we didn't call, which is really great. So, that, on it's own, if everyone stuck to that payment plan, in our situation, that leaves about £30,000 more in for the council, if they do. Of course, some people will default on those repayment plans but, you know, even assuming a 30% default rate, you're bringing in £20,000. 50% default rate, you're bringing in £15,000, relative to the, sort of, £1,000 outlay, basically.


(TC: 00:25:11) 

Rhian Gladman: Okay. So, for an investment of the council, in terms of staff time, or about £1,000, you're seeing, in the, sort of, worst case scenario, a fifteen-fold return on investment?


(TC: 00:25:25) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, that is the story so far, but there's a twist in the story.


(TC: 00:25:28) 

Rhian Gladman: Oh, a twist. Tell me more about the twist.


(TC: 00:25:31) 

Tim Pearse: So, to stick on the good news, we reduced the number of residents facing bailiff action, so again, around 25% fewer residents faced bailiff action who we called. However, as I mentioned in the earlier section, court does make people pay, right? So, sending people to court scares the hell out of them, some people anyway, and they pay. So, when we look at the, kind of, two months after stage, there was a set of people who just clear their debts straight off, just pay the whole amount of money, and it was more common for the people we didn't call to do that. So, there's some sense of, if you call them, 'Cool, I'll set up a payment plan,' whereas if you just send them to court and give them the nasty treatment, they might just pay everything. So, if I look at the treatment group, so around 10%, so the people we called, 10% of all of them cleared their whole debt and you never have to, sort of, speak to them about that ever again, whereas in the people we didn't call, it's more like 15%. So, a small but, kind of, important difference given that these are huge clearances of money. So, now, if you, again, work it all out, and even with a reasonable default rate, the treatment group will still end up paying more money back, but you have to wait for it. So, that's the only thing that I think it's important for colleagues to be aware of is that, you know, court will make some people just pay everything upfront. What's interesting is that we looked into some of those payments, just to see if, like, they were definitely sustainable and you can see some people making those sorts of payments on their credit card. Not a lot of people, but again, that then suddenly doesn't feel like such a win for the council anymore, because you're probably just pushing pressure into another bit of the system.


So, I think very positive, there is this thing of, like, you might get more money straight away, but there will likely be a cost to that of, you know, people who maybe can't afford to pay that, and you've also put a lot of pressure on people who don't even make that payment anyway, basically.


(TC: 00:28:00) 

Rhian Gladman: I guess, as well, it's the qualitative insights. You know, the insights around the barrier to that behaviour that you wanted to encourage, which is payment of debt, by having those conversations with local residents, you're understanding your local communities more, and you're understanding where they're at and what is affecting their lives, and we're understanding about the avoidance issue or is it something else.


(TC: 00:28:24) 

Tim Pearse: Exactly.


(TC: 00:28:24) 

Rhian Gladman: So, you're getting, obviously, the payments made but, you know, tell me more about those, sort of, insights that you would've gained through speaking to local residents about what was driving that behaviour.


(TC: 00:28:34) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, that's exactly right. So, you know, as much as this was, in part, about, 'Let's talk to people that can afford to and bring the money in.' You know, that was not the, sort of, 'Let's do that at all costs.' It was always about, you know, trying a different approach, getting a better outcome for the residents, and also, just establishing a different sort of relationship with our residents. We are really keen to have a more, kind of, human, conversational relationship with our residents. So, as I said, in those calls, we learnt a lot of things about people which made a lot of sense and we could help people. So, you know, there was, sort of, signposting and referrals and stuff, which was great and you know, and the interesting thing is, it wasn't even such an intense, sort of, approach. It was literally, sort of, just an extra chat. So, I feel like there's more to be had there and what's interesting now is, as I mentioned, we're developing the approach, we're on our second part of it now. One of the thing's we're doing is getting colleagues that offer debt advice to just do stray call-outs to people that look like they're struggling, so again, we can use our data to see if people have multiple debts to the council that are quite large, we can see if they've-, you know, if they receive benefits, if they've received a DHP, and using that data, you can then define a cohort that you think actually probably does really need debt advice, and we're giving them a call from someone who can just-, in fact, we're giving them a text if they do want debt advice, and people are saying yes or no, and then we arrange an appointment with them. And what's really amazing about that is, you know, basically people break down in tears because they say, 'This is the first time that, you know, the council's, sort of, taken an interest in what's going on, why this is happening to me, and why I'm not making payments, or.' And, you know, it's really-, that's when you start realising the power of this.


If you can find, you know, the people that do need this, and certainly not everyone does, you can start getting really targeted interventions and we've been doing some really serious helping people, as I said, we screened out-, you know, there's enough people that haven't ever received discretionary housing payment, and quite quickly you could probably have one of those, and there's all sorts of things that you can then offer. So there's lots of little sub-sections within this group of people who owe money to the council, and the better you can work out who is who, the better you can give them the service that's best for them.


(TC: 00:31:26) 

Rhian Gladman: So it's those really targeted preventative interventions, and it's the right messenger, so it's the right person from the council who can help them, and then there's the piece you were saying about feeling understood, feeling seen and heard by the council and helped at an earlier point, and to be helped with that issue around avoidance of something that seems too big and scary, whilst having a holistic understanding of what's going on for that resident, and where they may be touching other services in the council through the data, is that their summary?


(TC: 00:32:01) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, that's exactly right, and I think your point on, you know, messengers is really interesting. So there's lots we've done around that, and, you know, for example, we've tried to unhide our numbers, we've tried to-, what we don't want to do is call people and them instantly getting the sense that, 'It's the council and they want to talk about the debt.' Right, so, you know, our Homes and Money Hub, which is our debt advice service, has a really good relationship-, has a really good reputation in the borough, and, you know, the funny thing is, people give it very, very high applauses, and say, 'You know, you're so much more helpful than the council. The council's absolutely terrible.' You know, and it's almost-, and we don't want to dispel that myth, because they have such a good reputation now, that it's like, 'Great, let's work with residents using that reputation.' So again, when we're making those calls, we can say, 'It's the Homes and Money Hub.' And that feels like a group of people that are there to, kind of, support and listen, as opposed to, you know, the general council who people have a-, certainly the people who are in debt to the council, have a less favourable view of.


(TC: 00:33:16) 

Rhian Gladman: So yes, more than-, it's getting the debt recovery, but it's a wider offer of help and support than that, isn't it, as well. Like, in terms of that trial from start to finish, how long did it take, roughly? Just so the councils can think through, actually, 'Where would that fit for us if we were to do something similar?'


(TC: 00:33:36) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, so the-, that's a good question. So, you know, the intervention itself, i.e. calling people, lasted one week. That's all it was. But then, you know, then-, and then after that, it doesn't need much input, you just have to wait, you know, a week, and then two months, and then you need to just take a look at your data and match the names of the people you've called against the payment rates. So that's not a long term-, that you can define those, like, how long after you want to measure it. The planning in advance stage definitely does take a while, I'm just trying to think how long that would have, you know, what's a realistic estimate to put on that, but I think, sort of, like, part of quite a few people's time for three months, maybe two months if you want to be snappy, would be a realistic estimate. Not that it needs-, not that it, you know, has to take that long, but as there were several teams involved in this, you have to get your data lined up so you're ready to cut it quickly, send out the messages, that kind of thing. You have to get the services, the front-line services have to have capacity in that one week, and so I'd say there's a lot of, sort of-, it's a lot of, kind of, talking, and getting people ready, and working out some of those details. You know, a lot of councils have this infrastructure in place already, so in theory you could get it up and running very, very quickly if everyone was like, 'Yes, let's do it, let's do it, let's do it.' But, you know, of course, you have to properly work with-, that's the other thing, it'd be different bits of the council, so, you know, the council tax guys and the debt advice guys, and the data guys, and the, you know, all those people working to, kind of-, they have got their day jobs, and so it's about making sure that whatever you do doesn't make their lives really difficult, basically.


(TC: 00:35:42) 

Rhian Gladman: So you started talking about the second pilot that you're working on.


(TC: 00:35:46) 

Tim Pearse: I think, based on the results of the first pilot, people were pretty happy with it, it felt like a really good, you know, it was definitely value for money, residents loved it, staff voiced a good approach. So, basically, the question is kind of, like, 'Let's do more, what does it look like.' So what we want to do, well, what we've started doing is we designed an approach with a few more teams, and basically trying to reduce the amount of work we do for people who don't pick up the phone. So the first thing we do is we first offer people, kind of, support via text, and that can go, kind of-, so we have three routes for people based on what their, kind of, data looks like, right, so we have people who look like they need debt advice, we'll go through our Homes and Money Hub journey, so to speak, and that is basically a text saying, 'Hi there, we noticed, you know, you have fallen into this debt, we're the Homes and Money Hub. If you want to call about debt advice, it's free, let us know.' And then if they say, they just text back, 'Yes', they get an appointment. So that's the people who are, like, in debt. We then have people who look, kind of, difficult to find, difficult to reach, partly maybe they just don't even have a phone number on the system, or an email address or anything, or I don't know, partly because they've got lots of different addresses, or things like that. So for them we have a-, we work with our, Tenancy Sustainment Team, so that is a group of people who work with our residents in social housing and who-, kind of, support groups that are looking at risk of losing their tenancy, so I should say-, so for those there has to be people in social housing, but their bread and butter is going to knock on people's doors and saying, kind of, 'How's it going, do you need help?' So that's a, kind of, more intensive intervention.


And then we have a lighter-touch intervention as well, which is simply a text followed by an email, and the idea there is-, it's not the usual, kind of, 'You owe us this, pay now.' Kind of thing, but we really wanted to stress getting in contact if you feel like you can't pay, again, that felt like a lesson from the first time round, that people just didn't realise that the payment plan was an option, and you, kind of, need to-, you've got to push them into that, and so we wanted to have something quite light-touch, because the more light-touch it is, the more you can give it to people, basically, the more coverage you can get. So we wanted to test that as well. So that's what we've done, we've, you know, defined these three different groups, and have a control group in each, and we're putting them through that, each to those three pathways, and again, as I mentioned, very, very, very positive feedback from debt advice colleagues, but we're running it until roughly the end of November, and at that point we'll start having a look at what the stats say in terms of things like payment rates, and, you know, people going to court, and stuff like that.


(TC: 00:39:06) 

Rhian Gladman: I think that's a really important point you raise, about the depth of coverage of it being a lighter-touch intervention, you can get it further across the borough, further across the local population, and it's testing each of those, isn't it, to see which one gets more coverage. So, okay, so end of November you'd be looking to pull the results together for that one.


(TC: 00:39:31) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, yes, and I think the nice-, but also, the nicer thing about this-, about the, kind of, evolution of it is that I think the first time round we, sort of, had to make-, we had to be clear on the financial case as well as supporting residents, better outcomes for residents, more relational council stuff, right, we definitely want that, but we definitely have to have the money. So we can't just have people, you know, messing around with council tax. You know, that was, sort of, a bit of a-, but having done the first part, I think people are much more open to, 'Well let's use-, why aren't we not using our whole council tax process as, you know, to partly to, kind of, support residents and get just better outcomes.' Because that's what the council's there for, right, we're there to get better outcomes for our residents, and it doesn't matter how. If our council tax price is a good way of identifying people that, for example, need debt support, then great, let's do it. So it's been really nice to kind of, move it on to, you know, let's use this as a proactive way to outreach to people that need support, and, you know, fantastic if that support then ends up in them paying off council debts, but equally, you know, that will be a good-, getting them debt advice when they need it is a good outcome in itself. And I think, you know, we're-, if this goes well, which hopefully it does, we're very much thinking about, 'Well, what does this look like within business as usual, how could we-, you know, it's obviously we have 200,000 residents and roughly 100,000 households, so it's a lot of people, but, you know, which groups do you work with, what's the capacity?' And then exactly as you say, like, if we can get a light-touch offer within this that a lot of people could access, then fantastic, because that's more people we can work with.


(TC: 00:41:026) 

Rhian Gladman: When it's that, sort of, carrot versus stick approach, isn't it, between, you know, the stick of enforcement which costs a lot, is stressful, with outcomes for residents, say, that can be negative. Even if it gets you that short term result you want, it's still the stick approach, isn't it. Whereas if we can go for more of the carrot approach of actually, 'How do we in a proactive way work with people to help them to change their behaviour?' Maybe apply-, you know, appeal more to their intrinsic motivation, not just the external threat of enforcement. That's a really interesting place for the council to be doing this work with local residents, in a partnership, really, in a collaboration.


(TC: 00:42:15) 

Tim Pearse: Exactly, exactly, exactly, exactly right. So it does feel like, you know, it's about a collaboration. We'd be dead keen to work with voluntary sector colleagues who are already thinking about some of our key partners, and how we can bring them in. So yes, that's exactly-, basically, yes. Yes to all of that, really, yes.


(TC: 00:42:44) 

Rhian Gladman: So what we usually do at this point, Tim, and I think you'll remember this from the last time you were on the podcast as we're, sort of, bringing things to a close in our conversation, is to really ask you for what are the top three tips that you would share with other councils who are looking to undertake behaviour change-type activity in relation to debt and debt services? What are those top three things that you're like, 'Oh, I wish I'd known that at the start.'


(TC: 00:43:10) 

Tim Pearse: So I guess, you know, if you're doing outreach, there's always a question of how you're going to have that conversation. So the, sort of, nightmare scenario is you get the government knocking on your door and saying, 'Hello, you know, our data says you need to talk to us.' Kind of thing, right, and that's not the kind of thing we want to get up to, so I guess one of them would be around-, you know, if you want to have a conversation with residents, what's your basis for that? So we actually found council tax to be a really good way to have a conversation with our residents about debt in general, and even then, it sounds-, you know, if you frame that wrong, it's the worst conversation you have, because you're just adding to their debt problems, but if you say, 'Well, look, we noticed that you fell into council tax debt. How's it going?' That can open up a different set of conversations, and that can lead to, kind of, debt support. But also, you know, if we look forwards, as I say, we have a single, kind of, front door in the form of community solutions. What else, sort of, conversations could that lead to? So that's one of them, I think, sort of-, on why are you calling them, what's a good reason to call them that doesn't feel scary and does feel helpful? Think quite carefully about that, because it doesn't need to be-, you know, you can call them for reason A, council tax, but have a discussion about item B which is debt, or anything else. So that would be, you know, I think, just one lesson for me, which is mildly behavioural but I thought, just a, kind of, interesting one that I certainly took away from it. Two, I think we've, sort of, discussed already, which is around complexity. So, you know, I think in the first one of these I did, I think I said, 'Just get something done, get something off the ground.' And I think that is critical, and I stand by that completely, but I think the thing we learn here where that may have not gone so well is this, sort of, transfer between the two teams. So we added too much complexity into the process which led to-, you know, we lost people who wanted to speak to us, and that's a bit of a shame.


Now, it's hard to know-, I genuinely don't know if we could have done it in a different way, because it is very hard for our outreach team to take council tax payments, and our council tax colleagues were very busy having incoming calls, so. But I just think there is something about-, you were talking about, like, friction, you know, when you're talking about making payments, or debt advice, or anything really. The amount of friction that you're putting into a system, you're going to get people falling out of it, the more friction there is. So reduction of complexity, reduction of friction, if you can be as aggressive as possible to get that simple, then I think absolutely everyone wins from that. I think the final thing is sort of, what can your data tell you. And it doesn't have to be perfect, but I think, you know, it's very interesting. Councils hold a lot of data on their residents, and we talk a lot about prevention, and I think my take on this is unless your preventative activity is ultra-light touch and you can give it to everyone, you somehow need to whittle all your residents down into the group that you're going to offer some kind of support to. So if we're talking about debt advice, debt advice. So the question is who you're going to do preventative work with to stop their debt escalating? Now, there's different answers to that, but I think one of the ones is around what is the data you hold to identify the group that could benefit most. And it's not necessarily the most obvious thing, so it could be around, you know, levels of debt and stuff like that, but you could look at other things. I don't know, but as I said, we got quite interested in, you know, defining a cohort that we thought could use support based on the fact that they had never received discretionary housing payment, they had never come and seen us for debt advice before. So, you know, little things like that can then help you think, 'Well these people might the exact right people to do outreach to.' So I'd think-, you know, it doesn't have to be complex, but I'd think carefully about, 'If we want to do prevention, what data do we have to, kind of, identify cohorts?' And sometimes you might even say, 'Well, actually, we need to change our whole cohort, because the data we have is this.' But then at least we know who we have, and we get give them X, Y, Z, really.


(TC: 00:47:56) 

Rhian Gladman: Brilliant three points, Tim. Always a pleasure to talk to you, always a pleasure to talk to you, thank you so much for you time.


(TC: 00:48:04) 

Tim Pearse: Not at all.


(TC: 00:48:04) 

Rhian Gladman: And if I ask nicely, would you be able to provide the results of your second trial to us at the end of November, and we'll get those written up and pop those on our website as a case study. Would that be okay to do that?


(TC: 00:48:17) 

Tim Pearse: Yes, it'd be great, it'd be great. I mean, honestly I'm-, you know, concerned if it's all a total disaster, I might, you know, I might not share my data. But of course, being a good behavioural scientist I will, I'll be very honest about what happened, and yes. It'd be absolutely brilliant to get back and, you know, since having done the first one, there have been quite a few people that have actually come and talk to me about the work and stuff, which has been really good feedback. So yes, I'd be delighted to be back, thank you Rhian.


(TC: 00:48:44) 

Rhian Gladman: Great stuff, great stuff. Thanks so much, Tim. Excellent to talk to you. So if there's another example, really a fantastic example of a behavioural insights project, well, you've got two projects there, really, that you can try out in your council. So we've got more examples similar to Tim's there on our website, so if you go to, and search for 'Behavioural Insights' you'll be able to look at the case studies there, and we'll get Tim's project written up, and we'll get that onto the website as well, so you can see more and check out the results. So thank you so much for listening, and please do share the podcast with your friends and colleagues, and we will see you again soon on the next episode of the podcast, Nudges for Social Good. Thanks for listening, bye now.