Encouraging response to the annual electoral registration canvas

The Electoral Registration Officer (ERO) must send a canvass form (known as a HEF) to every residential address in the registration area. In Pembrokeshire this is approximately 64,000 properties. This case study forms part of our behavioural insights resource.


The purpose of the canvass is to confirm that the electoral register details are correct and to identify any potential new electors.  The ERO must then send a reminder (HEF 2) to every non-responding household and, where necessary, a second reminder (HEF 3).  There is also a requirement to make a home visit if we receive no information in response to HEF 3.

The challenge

The reality of our findings told us this:

  • Approximately 50 per cent of households return the form at HEF 1 stage.
  • A high percentage of forms were returned in the pre-paid envelope provided. 
  • Forms returned by post need opening, sorting, scanning and processing.

We faced a number of difficulties that make obtaining a response to the HEF challenging:

  • The HEF that we use during the canvass is prescribed and inflexible in its content.
  • In each case we must provide a pre-addressed postage paid reply envelope, although the facility is available for householders to respond in other ways, e.g. via internet, SMS or telephone services.
  • People do not always attach importance to responding to the HEF and many are not engaged in the electoral process, and therefore do not respond.

The solution

We identified the canvass as a particular project with scope to reduce costs, improve response rates and modernise the whole process. Prior to the commencement of  2018 - supported by the Transformation and Digital teams - we introduced a number of interventions: 

Modified the outward envelope: A report by The Behavioural Insights Team suggested that messaging on the envelope would be particularly effective in bringing forward responses at the initial stage. In short, if recipients did not open the envelope, it was impossible for them to respond to the HEF.

The easy letter design: Again based on The Behavioural Insights Team report, we adopted a letter design that was associated with encouraging response, particularly electronic responses. 

A different message: It was clear that ‘for electoral purposes’ was not motivating everyone to complete the HEF.  At the HEF 2 stage, we sent a covering letter that emphasised the fact that being registered to vote would likely increase a person’s ability to obtain credit.  This letter was sent to the areas that had been the least engaged in the process at the earlier stage. 

The impact (including cost savings/income generated if applicable):

We experienced a 7% increase in responses at the HEF 1 stage. Increasing response rates early in the process resulted in savings associated with fewer follow-ups.  The modified envelope, easy letter design and social media campaign all contributed to these improvements. 

There was a shift towards digital responses. Working in collaboration with our Digital Team, the easy letter design encouraged responses via the digital channels, particularly online. We had 8,546 additional IVR responses, delivering estimated savings of £7,862.00.

The credit message significantly increased responses. Analysis of the electoral wards shows that responses from those areas receiving the original covering letter at HEF 2 increased by an average of 15%, whilst those areas that received the credit letter increased by an average of 20 per cent.       

We experienced a gain of 5 per cent extra forms returned at HEF 2 stage, resulting in canvassers’ savings of £5,500.

How is the new approach being sustained?

Looking forward this year, the requirements on us remain the same (by the 2020 canvass, it is anticipated that there will be changes to the canvass process, following the implementation of canvass reform).  We plan to build on the work done in previous years, develop some new ideas and to explore some of the opportunities that exist with developments in technology available through the software that we use. 

Lessons learned

The lesson is simple; set against a context that requires a behavioural shift within a demographic, asking for a significant call to action, behavioral insights can bring about positive, tangible results. As a County Council going through a transformation process, it is vital that we apply a dynamic curiosity to our process creation, not simply adopting the ways of before or meekly asking our stakeholders for a different response. Behavioural Insights offer us an opportunity to be creative and experimental, seeking percentage gains that drive faster outcomes and save taxpayers’ money.

Contact: Jon Bell, PR and Communications, Transformation

Email address: jon.bell@pembrokeshire.gov.uk

Links to relevent documents