Essex County Council processed the vast majority of Blue Badge renewals in paper, causing significant additional cost compared to online renewals. By using behavioural insights and making small changes to the renewal letter, the number of paper renewals was reduced by almost one-fifth.
Like most councils, Essex County Council, spends resource on paper-based systems. Some of that goes on administering Blue Badge permits for disabled drivers – with around 1,500 paper renewals being processed each month. With the continued pressure on public service budgets, and challenging targets to reduce costs across the customer services function, Blue Badge renewals were an obvious place to reduce costs and make the process cheaper and more efficient. The most obvious way to do this was to get people to renew their permits (and do an array of other things) online rather than more expensive face-to-face or paper based administration.
We (Social Engine) were invited to help the Council test, through a Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT), whether small changes to the Blue Badge renewal process using behavioural insights could encourage channel shift – moving people away from paper and face-to-face to using online and digital for renewals.
Working collaboratively with officers, we helped to design a variety of variations to the standard renewal letter, using behavioural insights:
We wanted to see what was effective in encouraging online renewal. The three ‘interventions’ were tested, against the standard renewal letter, over a period of four months and the results showed conclusively that simplification and an intrinsic incentive encouraged online renewal.
Just by making small changes to the renewal letter we managed to reduce the numbers of people that renewed by post by almost 20 per cent (8.6 percentage points) for the simplified version and 18 per cent (7.7 percentage points) for the incentive. And because we used an RCT to test it, we can be confident that the difference can be attributed to the changes we made to the letter.
We used the figure of £12 savings for every transaction conducted online rather than by post, which was developed by Baroness Martha Lane-Fox, in her role as the Government’s Digital Champion, to quantify the return on investment. For Essex that figure results in a saving of around £20,000 a year simply by changing the renewal letter.
Since completing the trial the Council has adopted the simplification treatment renewal letter as its standard Blue Badge renewal template. Data collected following the simplified letter being used shows that the level of online renewals is now over 50 per cent, with only one in twenty Blue Badges now being renewed on paper. The remainder – 44.8 per cent - are completed over the phone.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The RCT gave the Council strong evidence of what works, enabling them to adopt the simplified letter as their new standard renewal letter. Since they did so, only 5 percent of renewals are done by post, with over half of all renewals now being done online (the remainder are done over the phone). The trial has helped the Council move toward online renewals for blue badges and acted as a model for the transformation of services across the council.
Following the completion of the Blue Badge trial, we worked closely with the Council over a period of time to share the learning from the trial with officers across the organisation to enable them to adopt the use of behavioural insights as a tool for tackling corporate challenges more widely.
As the first RCT of any notable scale within Essex County Council, we were greatly encouraged by having successfully conducted the experiment.
The experiment was run at low cost and generated results that give the Council confidence in ways to successfully enhance channel shift and deliver on the RCT’s intended outcomes. The process also provided a proof of concept for the potential to use RCTs and behavioural insights more widely across the Council.
Cheryl Arthur, Head of Telephone and Digital Access, Essex County Council
For information relating to applying or renewing a Blue Badge via Essex County Council please visit https://www.essex.gov.uk/blue-badge.