Using behavioural insights to reduce homelessness applications in Croydon

The London Borough of Croydon designed a behavioural solution to encourage uptake of alternative pathways to finding accommodation.

Efficiency and income generation

The challenge

As with most local authorities and particularly in London, the demand for social housing outstrips the available supply by a huge margin. In Croydon, some families have been on the waiting list for up to 10 years and the reality is that only a very small number of those on the housing register will receive an offer of social housing.

This can have a significant financial impact on the council, as local authorities have a duty to house those who are deemed homeless. Expenditure on temporary and emergency accommodation is running at around £6.5 million. In 2014/15 883 homelessness applications were accepted and this increased to 962 in 2015/16.

As part of the council’s independence strategy, we aim to enable Croydon residents to live and maintain homes independently, such as through the private rented sector.  

The aim of this project was to focus on early intervention activity and support to help prevent individuals and families from becoming homeless by encouraging the uptake of alternative pathways to finding accommodation.  

The solution

There are a number of projects led by the council’s award winning Gateway Service that are collectively seeking to increase supply and reduce demand. The Behaviour Change Hub (BCH) was asked to support a number of those projects and this case study illustrates the capabilities of addressing just one stage of the customer journey, namely when a customer presents to the council as being potentially homeless. 

To design a practical behavioural solution, the BCH had to first define and then diagnose the issues that could be driving demand.

Our approach drew on a number of behavioural and ethnographic research techniques such as job shadowing, ‘in situ’ customer observations, behavioural analysis, communications reviews, data mining and analysis, literature reviews, stakeholder interviews and customer journey mapping.  

Mapping the customer journey enabled us to identify pain points and bottlenecks at every touch point between a customer and the service, from first contact to placement or rejection. That analysis then helped us to identify a range of opportunities for intervention.

Using a priority matrix, we were able to identify a point in the process which offered the opportunity for a “quick win” with major financial impact (we define quick wins as interventions that can be designed and implemented very quickly with minimal cost and that deliver significant impact in a very short time period).

The quick win: the prevention interview

This quick win intervention sought to address the first stage of the customer journey, i.e. when a customer presents to the council as being potentially homeless. The pain points identified included:

  • lack of clear and appropriate communications strategy
  • inconsistent messages to customers across housing officers
  • customer expectations were not being managed
  • customers were not aware of the support available to help them to find accommodation in the private rented sector
  • Customers continuing with the housing application after their first interview with the council

An intervention was then designed using the “MINDSPACE” framework which aimed to address the behavioural drivers and biases that gave rise to the pain points identified, such as:

  • Optimism bias - customers generally believed they stood a good chance of being allocated provision even though statistically the actual probability of success is extremely low (e.g. lottery tickets)
  • Loss aversion - customers wanted to achieve a positive outcome from the meeting, having committed time and investment to attend
  • Messenger effects - customers believed success stories of other customers more than advice from housing officers

The key elements of the intervention were (a) new communications strategy and (b) introduction of service user toolkit for the housing officers.  These included:  

  • Revised communication guidelines for staff
  • Pictorials/Visuals to ease communications with customers
  • Implementation prompts and action cards for customers to complete at the interview as encouraging customers to pre-commit to an action makes them more likely to carry it out
  • Online message pop ups (e.g. providing positive messages about private rent accommodation, dispelling myths, informing them that support is available)

Croydon behavioural insights project

“We needed a quick and simple way to convey to customers that they would have more control and say in their housing if they looked for their own Private Rented Accommodation (PRA). The Behaviour Change team were quick to identify the ideal opportunity to present this to the customer and design a solution that helps convey the message more effectively. The bus picture is very motivational when speaking with customers, as it quickly highlights what a homeless journey will look like for them, and at the end of it they only get PRA with very little say in where it might be. That has helped customers to take control. The bus seems like such a simple solution but has been a very effective tool for us.” Andy Griffin, Gateway Transformation Programme Manager

The impact 

Prior to the intervention the average number of new placements a month was 132 and the cost per placement is estimated to be around £6,750.

Therefore, each 1% reduction in placement would be equivalent to a reduction of 1.32 placements per month, which would equate to a saving of £8,910 per month (1.32 x £6,750) or £106,920 per year. Prior to the intervention being put in place, the prevention rate through the homelessness interviews was running at around 25%.

Actual results achieved from intervention:

  • Number of potential homelessness cases successfully prevented increased from 25% to 61%
  • Reduced homelessness costs to the council; this improvement generates cost savings of around £321,000 per month, which is equivalent to around £3.8 million per year
  • No change in the number of customers re-presenting as homeless at a later date, showing these cases have been sustained in the Private Rental Sector

In addition to the direct cost savings detailed above, there is also the potential for efficiency savings in staffing, as fewer cases go through to the statutory homeless application stage.

How is the new approach being sustained?

All staff who conduct homelessness interviews have been provided with training to embed and use the new process, which includes the pictorial representation of the conversation. The training has also increased understanding and awareness of what triggers resident behaviour in relation to housing and how these can be influenced.

In addition, all supporting staff that residents may come into contact with (such as Contact Centre staff) have been trained on the new messaging in order to ensure a consistent message is communicated by the council.

Lessons learned

  • Customer expectations can be managed by applying behavioural insights to communications (e.g. visual elements provide better understanding of process)
  • Action plans using devices such as implementation prompts can encourage customers to map out the steps they need to take in order to complete a task
  • Customer journey mapping can help staff understand pain points in their own behaviour and how it impacts upon customer decisions, making them much more likely to adopt new ways of working
  • Co-produced guidelines and toolkits adds meaningful structure to conversations with customers ensuring consistency of messaging and improved timekeeping

In summary, on long-term issues like social housing, behavioural insights alone will not provide a ‘magic bullet’ but when integrated into a more holistic programme of planned activity they can challenge accepted practice and significantly accelerate and enhance the outcomes that are achieved. While behavioural insights may not be responsible for delivering all of the benefits they can make a significant and demonstrable contribution as part of a wider programme.    

Senior Transformation Manager, Behaviour Change Hub, Croydon


London Borough of Croydon prevention booklet