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Podcast transcript (Nudges for Social Good) – Newham Council: encouraging debt arrears payment and supporting residents

Transcript of episode 17 of our behavioural insights podcast – Nudges for Social Good – in which Katie Brunger of Newham Council discusses how the council used targeted support to encourage Newham residents to make payments to tackle their debt arrears and how behavioural insights trials can have sometimes have unintended consequences.

Rhian Gladman: 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 behavioural insights programme here at the LGA and we really want to demystify behaviour change and share those practical examples for what councils are doing to use this approach to improve local public services. So, in today's episode we'll be sharing the work that the London Borough of Newham have been doing to use behavioural insights to help residents in debt. And it's great to have Katie Brunger from the London Borough of Newham with us today. Katie how are you?


Katie: Yes, great, thanks very much. Nice to see you this morning.


Rhian Gladman: Good stuff. Thanks for your time today, really appreciate it and sharing the learning that you've had at Newham with the rest of local government. So, first things first, can you introduce yourself and the role that you play at the council please?


Katie: Yes, absolutely. So, my name is Katie Brunger, I work at the London Borough of Newham and my role is I'm a service design and insight manager, so, I work in the, kind of, corporate transformation team, wider team that do absolutely all sorts. My role, I get involved in all sorts of weird and wonderful projects but mainly around helping services to improve what we do for not only for the council's good but obviously for residents as well.


Rhian Gladman: Good stuff. So, yes, you can see how behavioural insights really fits into that change agenda and is, I guess, a recent tool really in that change armour isn't it of the council?


Katie: Yes, the service design has only really been around in our council for a few years and it's something we are developing and trying to embed within not only the way we work but the way the council works, so, focusing on the users experience or our residents experience, really getting to understand and, kind of, discover what is happening before we start thinking about what we do about it and solutions, and really, you know, understanding the evidence whether that's qualitative, quantitative, anecdotal to, kind of, build a case for making decisions. And also trialling things is a very important part of service design, developing things, testing things, iterating what we do to make sure that what we get at the end does work for us and for residents, and we've always got a keen focus on making things as easy as possible and always thinking about it from the residents point of view. So, it's a way of working and there are lots of tools and techniques of doing it but it's something we are trying to embed within all council areas so that it's, kind of, a business as usual activity, because in the end we're here to serve the residents and we want to make it as, you know, smooth experience as possible and that we can be as helpful as possible.


Rhian Gladman: Yes, that's so vital the work that you're doing there within the council. So, what was the behavioural challenge that you set out to try and address through this project?


Katie: Yes, so, Newham is an area where debt is a particular issue. We did some work a few years ago within our team to understand what the situation was and one of the challenges that we were finding was that people struggle with sometimes paying their debts, and that may be for lots of different reasons, so, it's not necessarily always to do with having the money to pay. It may also be to do with their situation that they're in, and the behaviour we wanted to be able to focus on was encouraging people to, kind of, deal with and manage any money issues and financial issues early on, because we were finding that when people get into debt it's quite hard to pull yourself out of it, because as you go through a process, you know, the debt increases, you may also incur fees and charges and then it gets more difficult to manage debt. We were also finding that people who were coming to our debt and money advice service that we run as a council, you know, were in high levels of debt and had multiple debts. So, they weren't seeking help and advice until later on in the process when it was coming to, kind of, crisis stage, and actually there's a lot of evidence out there to say the earlier you can get support to help, contact the council so we can work with you and find a solution to that, the better it is not only for residents in the longer term, short and longer term, but also for the council as well in terms of supporting residents to do that, but also ensure that we are bringing in the necessary funds that we have a duty to do, but also to help run our services.


Rhian Gladman: So, I guess to summarise really, the behavioural challenge there was encourage local residents at risk of debt or in debt to engage with the council earlier in the debt journey rather than further down the stream. Is that a fair summary.


Katie: Yes. So, we were finding that people were doing it too late in that journey and we wanted to encourage them much earlier on in that journey, as early as possible to seek contact support to help so that things don't necessarily, kind of, spiral out of control or get worse which can have wider impacts on people's wellbeing and life and other costs to society in general.


Rhian Gladman: Yes, I think that's a really important point. There's obviously that point as you said around bringing the money in to run the services that are required, but there's that point around the outcomes for residents, and as a council the important role you have to play there. Could you say more about that please?


Katie: Yes. So, when we looked at the kind of impacts on people, you know, we know that about one in four of Newham's adult population are over indebted, so, there's a lot of people that this applies to. It's not small numbers. And through some calculations we did on some work a few years ago it came out that the social costs in Newham could be as high as £180 million, and that might be, you know, relationship breakdown, evictions, children in care, job productivity loss, educational achievements, changes and health, impact on health and things like that. So, it's just always about the debt itself, it's the impact on people's lives and the wider cost to, kind of, them and their family.


Rhian Gladman: So, in order to, sort of, dig under what was driving that behaviour in local residency in terms of not engaging earlier upstream, engaging much later in the process, what did you do to, sort of, gather the insights into what was driving that behaviour?


Katie: Yes, so, we did a couple of things, obviously speaking to people within the council who often, you know, have a relationship with residents and deal with their areas quite often. So, understanding, kind of, anecdotal evidence from them about what that is. We also work very closely with Our Newham Money which is the debt and money advice service, because obviously they deal with and manage people's, sort of, difficulties that they're having and trying to support them in those to find out what their thoughts were. And then we also actually did quite a few interviews with a number of people who were happy to talk to us on a one to one basis about what they felt some of the issues were. And obviously there are things like life changes, big life changes that impact on people's ability to pay. You know, there might be employment changes, benefit changes, separation, divorce, things like that. Mental health issues or illness generally can be difficult. You know, understanding money and managing it and how to best manage it and, sort of, financial literacy about what it's all about and what to do in those areas. Being able to get access to advice services and help and in Newham there may also be some language barriers. Not everybody has English as their first language, may need to rely on other people to support them in that. And, you know, people disengage from it because it's too big an issue and there is a, you know, stigma attached to debt generally and coming forward and asking for help is quite a difficult thing to do, and even if people have come into debt when it's no fault of their own. The people we spoke to, the residents, also were saying they don't want to talk to other people about their debt. They don't want other people to know about it. Although family and friends are supportive they can't necessarily give them the professional advice that maybe they need, and also they were saying that they weren't really aware exactly where to get the help and who to get the help from so that they were prepared if this became an issue in the future. 


So, you know, it's about being proactive and supporting people who may go into debt before it even happens so that they know where to go, what to do and where to get support for these things. They also mentioned things like financial management skills, sometimes the communication that they receive on what debt they have is difficult to understand, you know, might not be empathetic enough for them to engage with it. That maybe it's not plain English so it's clear and clear what to do with that information, what to do next. And people did say, you know, it does have an impact emotionally and it's stressful and particularly if they have a vulnerability that can exacerbate the issue for them. And all of those things can result in people ignoring debt problems, not opening letters, not engaging early enough in the process so that they can, kind of, get the support and help early on to stop that snowballing. 


Rhian Gladman: I mean, we've seen this with some of our trials in health screening, for example, is there a bit of almost, like, head in the sand, I'd rather not know type behaviour going on here, is that fair?


Katie: Yes. I believe so, so that is what the residents we spoke to did say happened that there was a lot going on in their lives and this was just an added pressure that, you know, you don't want to cope with because there are a lot of other more immediate things you need to deal with. But also the staff who work in the council were saying that when they speak to people that is an issue as well, that they find it difficult to talk about and get that support and it's easier to ignore it, it's easier to ignore letters than open them and then having to deal with what that means and having to take some action, some positive action, which can be quite difficult for lots of different reasons that we've outlined.


Rhian Gladman: Yes, so, there are a lot of complex factors there driving the behaviour, were there any, sort of, findings from that insight gathering that surprised you or colleagues in the council?


Katie: I think what made us think in particular was that the point around the finding the communication difficult to understand. So, there are specific bits of information that as a council we, kind of, have to include in letters. There's a, sort of, standard information that needs to be in them and these are the letters that we've sent out all the time, that seems to work with most people, you know, what's the difficulty? But actually, you know, it brought it to the fore more that actually our communication doesn't work for everybody and being simple and clear and precise in what people need to do can impact on behaviour and that's why looking at behavioural insight trial to support that and test that was something we were really keen to do. And also the understanding that obviously not everybody responds in the same way depending on what their situation is and actually we need to take that more into account. 


Rhian Gladman: Yes, so, you've gathered all of these insights, a lot of complexity there around what's driving people or not driving people to engage earlier upstream in those debt services with the council. So, what were the next steps?


Katie: So, even before we applied to do a behavioural insight trial we also did some further work and we did, kind of, a deep dive very intense look at this piece of work over a couple of weeks and really dig even deeper into that and get a lot of people involved across the council. So, it was, kind of, gaining broader understanding and getting more people engaged in this topic and enthused to do something about it and to, sort of, share the knowledge of what we'd learnt from that investigation work. And obviously it was when COVID hit as well which exacerbated the issue for people. We also did quite a lot of work on when we re-started debt collection about trying to do that in a very supportive way, focusing on people with multiple debts as we knew that was an issue and just trying to be really clear with residents about what was owed and what they could do about it and trying to, you know, encourage people to start getting used to paying again, because once you're out of the habit that can be quite difficult to get back into. So, even once we'd looked at those issues we did further work in terms of broadening the scope, getting more people to understand and also contacting residents to help them with that. Also Newham, you know, we found also that Newham is particularly vulnerable, so, not only are many people in debt or have financial issues but Newham itself has quite a lot of the risk factors for that. There are a lot of renters in the borough higher than London, larger families, a lot of larger families compared to England. Some single parents, people with low income that are less than the London living wage and, sort of, the age population, so, often people 25 to 35/40 are those who can have some of the debt issues, not always, but the largest population of ours were in those age brackets. So, it was a particular risk factor for our borough, and so it was really important to keep that conversation going from what we'd looked at to, you know, looking at it in more detail and then thinking about, right, now we've, kind of, discovered and done the understanding part of it, now what can we do to do something about this? 


What can we as a council focus on to improve what we're doing, make it more efficient, but also support our residents on this journey. 


Rhian Gladman: So, you mentioned there that you widened it out to involve more people in this project, what types of services were you engaging with that maybe you hadn't before or... could you say a bit more about that please?


Katie: Yes, absolutely. So, we initially worked with council tax and housing rents but also we looked at parking as well. People have parking debts often that accumulate and are part of that, and as a council who runs that service that's important. There's the Our Newham Money service which I've mentioned, but also we did talk to our children's services and looked at, kind of, demand that was coming into them, children who were taken into care and the costs of that, and the, sort of, wellbeing aspects of the difficulties that that can cause. We also worked with our housing services particularly temporary accommodation, you know, looking at numbers of people who were ending up in temporary accommodation due to arrears in not able to pay their housing rent. And we were, sort of, starting to investigate other services where that might have an impact as well, talking to our call centre colleagues to understand that. Also working with our enforcement services who were previously, kind of, called bailiffs and understanding what does happen at the very top level when you're trying to recover debt, and what impact is that having and what support are they giving. And we do have a lot of, kind of, classed as ethical enforcement actions, so, it's, you know, we are still debt recovery agents but also doing that in a way that is known for being careful and considerate and supported people at the same time, and trying to support them through that process. So, yes, the net, kind of, was wider. We didn't just look at council tax and housing which are the main areas where obviously we receive money from people and we use that money obviously part of that money to support service delivery more generally.


Rhian Gladman: Was there a public health angle to this as well? Or, that might be something for the next steps of the project, just thinking around local economic inactivity particularly off the back of COVID, long COVID, is there a link there to be made?


Katie: Yes, we have actually, sort of, made some of those links and looked into them and that, so, particularly the social prescribing that takes place within the borough that's partly council and partly health authority combined and how it's provided. We actually did a bit of work with the people who manage those areas to understand well how do the referral routes work and do they work efficiently and well? So, that if people need support it might not be, you know, in intense work with someone, it might just be support that's not necessarily related to debt, it might be something else that actually a social prescriber could help them with. So, we actually did a piece of work on that a good few months ago, and that piece of work has actually broadened out in its scope and has been taken off in different directions about looking about how do we do social prescribing in the borough. So, yes, the, kind of, health link is there and making sure, you know, Our Newham Money can refer to them and vice versa so that they are aware that Our Newham Money exist and other money and debt support advice services that aren't run by the council, because obviously people need to have choice about where they go to. Some people may not feel comfortable going to a council owned service even though it provides independent advice.


Rhian Gladman: So, you've got again all of these insights, you're understanding more what's driving the behaviour, starting to involve different services from across the council, really widening out this outcomes based approach isn't it and across the council. So, how did you come to the behavioural insights intervention that you then trialled?


Katie: Yes, so, we felt that it was really important to focus on the early part of it because that's what lots of people were telling us and the evidence was, kind of, pushing us in that direction. So, what we wanted to do was think about what are some of the interventions we could do at that point? Now, we spent quite a bit of time scoping what was possible for council tax and housing. We decided to focus on those two first, and then we can obviously widen the scope later on based on how that worked. So, to be able to run a trial we had to understand the process of escalation of debt across those two different areas and that they are quite different in their escalation routes and also in their approach to looking at that area. Council tax is quite linear and straight. It's quite, sort of, one, next one, next one. It's quite a quick process and you only get, kind of, one or two reminders and then you're at summons and then, you know, you're adding costs and time on and it all gets very difficult from there. Housing, it does have an escalation route. It can be a little bit more-, there are reminders, but then obviously we have housing officers who get involved and try and have lots more conversations with people because people don't want to lose their housing. Once you losing housing then it becomes very very difficult. So, we will support people as much as possible for that not to take place. And they have different ways of interacting with people. So, they do text messages already with some of their people. They do send more letters. They have more conversations with people. There are different intervention routes. We can slow proceedings down, if people set up payment arrangements making sure they're affordable. Things like that.


So, we not only had two different processes to look at, but the time scales for those processes were quite different and the relationships that we have are quite different. But we wanted to look at both because we thought you can't rob Peter to pay Paul. If people pay their council tax they might not have enough money to pay their housing, and actually it needs to be a conversation across both.


Rhian Gladman: That's a really important point, Katie, sorry, just to say, yes, that point of unintended consequences, if you'd focused on one service the detrimental impact as you say to the other one, yes, that's-, so, you decided you were going to focus on the two. Yes, I just wanted to pull that point out, it's a really really important one for other councils listening in.


Katie: And it was interesting actually in the discovery stage because some people said, 'Oh, I pay whoever shouts the loudest.' Not everybody said that, but some people were saying, you know, 'My electricity bill are hounding me, I'll pay them first rather than my council tax.' You know, we as the council don't want to hound people and do that, but on the other hand there is that point about who do you pay first and who do you prioritise, and are they prioritising the kind of debts that are most immediate. And the debt and money advice services can help people understand which ones are the most immediate ones and which ones you can discuss payment arrangements and things like that with or other support types of help and advice about what to do on that. So, yes, it was important to, kind of, do both, and we also had to have enough people in our trials to be able to make the results statistically significant. There are more people in the council tax area who are going to be looking at that housing, so, it was again choosing points within those processes that worked and also that we would have enough numbers to be able to run a trial successfully. And, so, there were two points that we eventually settled on that we wanted to work with. The first one was an early intervention but using SMS, so, text messages to people. So, as people just fall into debt that might be they haven't paid their council tax bill or they've missed a payment on their housing rent and they're in arrears. You know, that is a good point before they then get a summons that they get a text message reminder just saying, 'This is council, this is who you are, this is what you owe, this is what we'd like you to do, and what support you can get help with.' So, we trialled that. We had a controlled group because it was a randomised control trial. 


We had a text message. The first one was slightly more focused on payment. So, it was asking people to, you know, click a link and make a payment, or go online, make a payment. If they needed help let us know or get in contact with us. The second one was slightly more supportive in its approach I would say, but also the second SMS we included a web form in it and we asked people if they were having trouble paying that they fill out the details and, kind of, let us know what the particular issues are as to why they may not be paying. And we spent quite a lot of time with Our Newham Money and others working out what those reasons maybe so they could tick boxes but also what sort of support they should get if they tick those boxes. And that included-, we wrote scripts for every single one so that if they ticked it was a, you know, difficulties with benefits or something like that, we would then send them information back over text about what to do on that, who to contact, where they could get the support with that. And if we felt that it was a few areas they were having difficulty with we would ask if it was okay to refer them to Our Newham Money so they could get direct support. The text messages in themselves also encourage people to do something immediately, so, within the next 24 hours the second text message, sort of, said, 'If you can't make it in the next 24 hours please tell us your circumstances so that we can support you in that.' The text messages we looked at designing them so the language was simple. We included their names, we included some of their account numbers, a small amount of them so that they knew it was correct, that the message was genuine. And it was just a, sort of, this in a friendly reminder, you know, it's not threatening language, we just-, some people will have genuinely forgotten that they needed to pay and will do something about it and other people might use it as a way to think, 'Oh, I need to change what I'm doing or make an action, contact the council.' Things like that. 


So, in terms of us having to manage that we had to also think about call numbers that may come into us because if we're encouraging people to contact us, ideally we'd like them to just pay if they can, but obviously part of this is to get people to make that contact because I think once they've made that contact it's easier to have those conversations. So, we had to think about managing call numbers and how we would do that over the weeks as the messages went out. We had had some experience in COVID and letters had gone out and call numbers had gone up and we'd learnt some lessons from that. The other issue for us was, you know, having up to date phone numbers because obviously we don't always have those on our accounts and that is something we probably need to look at in future as well. And text message fraud had gone up, it was always an issue but had obviously gone up in COVID times so that may be a bit of a barrier to people doing that. We had to make sure the language was clear and, yes, understandable. So, that first intervention was for those who were just tipping into debt, and we felt that that may have been an issue. They'd had a few weeks to pay from a reminder letter, they hadn't, so, this was a, sort of, a prompt before things became a bit more serious and they got a summons letter, which then adds costs onto them. 


Rhian Gladman: As well as as you say the outcome and the impact on them as residents and individuals. Yes, that's a really good point. So, in terms of allocating people to the control group or the treatment group, how did you go about doing that?


Katie: So, it was randomised, so, we ensured that we had a big enough sample coming in to us, or, we estimated based on previous numbers, and then those people were-, I've forgotten the official word that we use, but it's where you randomise people and make sure that people aren't the similar kind of people, or payment levels are in each group so that it is randomised and you're not going to skew any results that come out of the other side.


Rhian Gladman: So, that's working with offices within the service to get access to that data with the people who as you say are about to tip in, you know, that few weeks of debt, isn't it, it's a very succinct group?


Katie: It is, yes, and we did have to, sort of, interrogate our data a little bit and make sure we could pull it out at each week, check it, send it out. It was a little bit of a manual process that, so, we did have a company that do text messages for us, but some of what they could do was limited. So, we did have to manually, you know, send things out to be sent out on email and things like that. It wasn't an automated process and that's something that in future we're already looking at taking forward, getting new technology that can do that for us, because if this is going to become business as usual it's really important that they-, you know, it's easy to do and we don't cause difficulties by doing this and it's done well. Yes, so, that was our first trial, and then the second trial was people who we classed as, kind of, mid level arrears. So, they've, kind of, passed some of the stages and actually their debt was building up or they hadn't paid for a reasonable amount of time and we wanted to trial a letter at that point. People were used to getting letters as well from us, so, it wouldn't be unusual. And again we had a control group, we had a letter that was more focused on payment but still had behavioural insight focus on it. So, it was personalised, simplified language and it, kind of, had boxes with clear actions for people to do to try and, you know, engage them with it. And then our second letter was still a letter from the council but it included a lot more branding from Our Newham Money and about why they should contact them, how they can get support, why they could get support.


Still saying this is what you owe and this is how to pay, but actually the majority focus of that letter was about, you know, the messenger affect is the person who is giving that message, supporting people to make that contact, and some simple steps for residents to be able to do that, how they can get that support. So, we trialled those as well and looked at people who-, you know, what the differences were between each of those groups. But essentially it was two different letters at the mid-point arrears so that again before it gets any higher and more difficult for people to make sure that they are given, kind of, another chance to either pay or get support from us or relevant people.


Rhian Gladman: And it's bringing, as you say, if we go back to the insights gathering, that clear point around clarity of language and simple language and clear call to action and looking at all of these letters through that lens and that feedback to probably produce a different letter than maybe you would have before?


Katie: Yes, exactly, I mean, we spent quite a bit of time designing the letters, obviously making sure it included all the information we had to include as a council, which is really important. But also that, yes, as you say it was very clear, very simple direct call to action of what people needed to do, focusing on asking people to, kind of, respond and engage with things by putting that in key information, including their details so they know it's genuine. Yes, and, you know, even our payment letter on the front at the bottom still included if you are having difficulties what to do about that. We didn't want to lose that message. So, it was still important it was just less prominent in those to test what works and what can have the biggest impact really.


Rhian Gladman: So, I guess what you're testing with these trials is changing that point of earlier communication with residents before it becomes a bigger problem, trying a different-, you know, the text message and a letter, trying those different forms and also trialling that more direct call to action with supportive tone and links to support clearly communicated it was all of those things you were, sort of, trialling through this process?


Katie: Yes, exactly, and because it was a trial we were quite conscious about sending this out to people. So, we were very careful about who we included and who we didn't. So, for example, those on council tax who had council tax reductions and residents we were aware were vulnerable, they'd told us. You know, we didn't include in this trial. Actually some of those people may be the people who need the support the most, we don't know, but I think because it was a first trial we wanted to test the effect first. If it works then if we can roll it out more widely it might have a greater impact on people who, yes, maybe most benefited by it. 


Rhian Gladman: It's that, yes, test, iterate, test, iterate, keep going, yes, but to start something and start that process. So, how did you measure-, this is a question we always get asked is around the data and how would you know it was successful or not, like, how are you going to measure both of those trials?


Katie: Yes, so, a few things really. I mean, the first most obvious one I suppose is payment level, so, not only did the treatment impact on, A, was a payment made, when the payment would be made, what level that payment was, and the impact over, kind of, time. So, over a few weeks, did it impact more or less in that time? And which out of the treatments had the most effect. So, obviously payment is one thing and is-, obviously I'm not saying that's not useful and very important, but actually the contact thing was almost as important for us. It's about getting people to engage in it when they are having difficulties. So, the contact was important as well. So, we had a reference system basically, so, when somebody made a phone call to us or emailed us we knew they'd been sent a letter or a text message, we could record that they had contacted us and by what method. And then we do keep notes obviously of what the outcomes of some of those recordings-, sorry, not recordings, some of those conversations are or emails are, so, then we can understand, well, what are people contacting us about? Has it prompted a discussion that's led to something? Is it something that has led to a payment or setting up a different way to pay? But whatever it is there's, sort of, a general assumption that if people do make contact that is still beneficial than making no contact. So, we encourage that. So, we could measure that to a certain degree, and again I think that's something that we can develop in the future and in further trials and how we do things generally so that we can more easily, sort of, count that and see the benefits from that. And then obviously we could understand how many people filled out the web forms, what they were saying and what support they were asking for, and our other measure was about how many people when to Our Newham Money and what sort of support and advice they got from that, and what difference that made. 


So, we did spend a bit of time coming up with how that would work, how we would identify who the people were who had contacted us who were in the trial and not in the trial and what we would measure that on. So, that was quite difficult because that was quite new for us particularly following the process, who came in and what the result was for us. Again, that was a difficulty in terms of results for us about what came out and how people responded to the messages, and we didn't use those measures very much in the end. But they were in place and we had spent some time thinking about them and embedding them in, sort of, what Our Newham Money measures and what is important to understand from the interventions with them or the discussions they've had with people. So, they were, kind of, the key areas that we looked at in terms of how do we measure the results from this, how do we understand what impact this has had. And it did take some time to think about them and to plan them and to get the data in the right place and to be able to follow, you know, individuals who had made contact and to be able to record that and to be able to pull that out and then obviously making sure that that sensitive data doesn't identify individuals or households. 


Rhian Gladman: Really important point isn't it, and it's identifying that causality, people who are in the trial and then what they go on to do, and exactly as you say it's not just about the payment levels, that's important but you're looking at these wider outcomes and wider, sort of, measures. So, yes, that would have been a complicated thing to do, but I guess you've got those measures in place for when you go again with different groups, groups locally?


Katie: Yes, and I think it's really important to do that and I think that has been a learning for us as well that has prompted us to have lots of conversations about, well how do we measure this and what could we do, and does our system allow us to do this, and, you know, how can we share this information across services, and should we share this information-, you know, it's all of those kind of conversations that took a bit of time to do, but actually I think in the end has shifted our mindset about what we should be doing in the future and could be doing if we do trials or, you know, implement this as business as usual.


Rhian Gladman: So, what were the results?


Katie: So, well, interesting results I would say. So, on the SMS, on the text message, so, the first RCT, very different for council tax and housing actually. So, overall the messages did speed up a payment in the short term and our second SMS bided the highest income after week one. So, the supportive message actually did that. However, the people in SMS who received SMS one were more likely to make a payment. So, there's, kind of, good on both sides on that. They didn't actually increase the payment in the longer term, so, it didn't mean people paid more it just meant that people paid us more quickly. So, if they'd maybe gone on and received a summons they probably may have paid the same amount or at the same level, but the money came in more quickly. Yes, so, people who would normally pay just paid us earlier. And, so, essentially those in SMS one were four and a half times more likely to make a payment before the statutory reminder and the control, and five point two percent more likely to clear their outstanding balance than the control. Residents in SMS two were four point one percent more likely to make a payment and four point nine percent more likely to have cleared their balance. So, they've both had a positive impact in council tax in terms of payment. After the, kind of, first week, the payments converged, so, really the impact was in that first week and less so within the other weeks. 


Rhian Gladman: Sorry Katie, was it that you would get the text message once, and then in that first week people were making an action...


Katie: Yes.


Rhian Gladman: And then would they get it again? No, they'd just get it the once, so, it wasn't that... so, I guess what it's proved there is that if you get the text message and it's a call to action you do it quickly in that first week, rather than I've got the text message I'll do something about that next month? Like it is speeding it up?


Katie: Yes.


Rhian Gladman: Right, that's interesting.


Katie: So, yes, it's having, sort of, an immediate affect I suppose on people's behaviour. And then we're also actually looking at on what days? Is it a day after, or a few days after? And we're still looking at that because we think that might be important as well. In terms of housing and the text message and payment it actually had a very big detrimental affect on people paying. So, the first-, the SMS one we collected 31 percent less money after three weeks. So, people are less likely to pay, and SMS two 32 percent less money after three weeks, and they're significant results, statistically significant. So, actually it was very interesting from the fact that people were getting this message and it impacted that people would pay their council tax but they are less likely to pay their housing benefit, and we've spent a bit of time thinking about why that might be the case and, you know, it's quite unusual and it's quite different, and some of the things we've thought about are probably this relationship that we have with people. If they're getting a slightly different text message to what they normally do, whether they normally have conversations with people and deal with it that way. They might be thinking, 'Well, what on earth is this text message? I don't want to do anything, I'm already having a conversation or I'm going to have a conversation.' But it's quite interesting that there is a big difference between those two areas. In terms of contact rates, because obviously again it wasn't just about payment it was getting people to contact us, it did have a positive impact. So, sort of five point eight percent overall increase in people contacting us from when they were sent a text message, and slight differences between SMS one and two, but not really that much of a difference. Slightly higher in the support letter. 


So, I think it's four point one percent on that one and three point four on SMS one. And again, the contact was more likely to be in the first week, so, it was more of an immediate response. Yes, and then some people did fill out our web forms, but not very many at all. It was, sort of, eight/nine percent, and people were saying different reasons as to why they had filled those out. So, in council tax it was more about having other debts and reduced working hours and job difficulties, unexpected expenses. And in housing people were saying they may have pay day loans or council tax debts or they are trying to decide between money, fuel, credit cards and where they spend their money. So, those results weren't significant but they are of interest to us because we can understand more about people's situations. I think also that we found having looked at this information and, sort of, thought, 'Well, why aren't people filling this information in?' Obviously we know it's difficult for people to do that, but we would hope people would use that as a way to get support. But some research that we've come across recently suggests that actually if you ask for information people are less likely to provide it, what works better or might work better is actually suggesting what support is available and then people will access and think, 'Oh, actually that might be helpful to me.' And make the contact that way and engage that way, and then once they've made that engagement then you can, kind of, talk more widely about their situation and what would be helpful for them. So, that's been an interesting one. I'm glad we did it but I think it's probably one that we might need to refine if we were going to use it in the future. 


Rhian Gladman: Yes.


Katie: So, that was our CT one, on our CT two which was the letters, the mid level arrears, so, the payment letter did increase payment significantly. So, there was 530 percent increase in payment after four weeks from that letter going out, and it slightly increased the contact rates that people were contacting the council, not by a huge amount but enough to make it useful for us and them. And then the support letter did increase contact rates at the council compared to the control, but the payment was not significantly different to the control group. So, for us that's obviously interesting. The first one does help with payment and does help with contacts, and the second one does help with contact but not at all with the payment part of it. So, it was quite interesting. So, yes, there was about an eight percent increase in people making contact with the council due to those letters going out, which is quite reasonable, quite good. And then we also looked at, well, why were they contacting us, what did we do with that? Some of it was they're wanting to make payments and that was slightly higher in council tax than housing. Some were wanting to set up direct debits, and some were talking about just obtaining arrears summary, so, understanding their position basically and then what they could do about it. But again, like we've said, it is about having that engagement and talking to us and working that through. So, that was a really important part of it. So, yes, interesting results for the second letter as well. We also found that different amounts of people paid in full than didn't pay in full. So, actually most people who made a payment paid in full. It was, sort of, 80 to 100 percent which was quite interesting as well. So, those who could pay, maybe it was just another prompt for them to pay. So, it wasn't necessarily an issue that they couldn't pay it was just they had forgotten or something else had happened or whatever that may be. Yes, so, they're the, kind of, key results that had come out of the trial and that are really useful to us, really really interesting and useful, that we've, kind of, dug into deeper since we've got them. 


Rhian Gladman: So, yes, you started off all that rich learning and insights around what was driving or not driving in this case, this behaviour of early engagement with the council on that debt journey. You've trialled two different separate interventions and then you've got again a real rich level of results across both of those trials. Some really interesting, some unexpected, and you've also got as well as those payments going up you've got more of a richer understanding of what people are contacting you for and have encouraged people, that eight percent increase with one of the letters to get more people in touch with you, which is that outcome that you wanted as a council as well as the income going up. So, excellent project. I'm interested to see how you're going to take this forward. What are the next steps with all of that learning?


Katie: Yes, and it has been a lot of learning, not only in managing the project and developing it, designing it and delivering it, but also the results that will help us look at that. I mean, we're already using that to improve our administration processes like we said. We're looking at new tech for sending text messages and doing that more as an automated thing because we can see the benefit in that. You know, we've looked into what works on web forms and doesn't and how we can encourage people to do that and understanding the different relationship between people. So, we are using that to actually think about other trials we could run. So, we're currently looking at housing benefit over payment and change of circumstances and using some of the learning from this in terms of encouraging people to engage with us to tell us about change in circumstances. We're also looking at how can we embed some of these things into our business as usual activity so that maybe some of the text messages or letters that we've used can become, you know, a regular part of what we do with people, and as part of our process, and so long as we can do it, you know, efficiently and slickly and that we can manage contact rates from this then, you know, this has proven to us that this can make an impact. It may not be an absolutely huge impact but it does make an impact and it does, you know, what we wanted to do at the beginning which was, yes, look at our budget and ask people to pay. And it's really important we do that, and we have a duty to do that apart from anything else and to support service delivery. But also to support our residents which we know for lots of reasons not only due to the COVID as well but what's happening and all the things that are happening now about cost of living and things like that, you know, people are being squeezed.


So, it's not an issue that's going to go away and it does impact people's lives. So, we think even if it is a small impact it's worth doing and it's worth us spending the time to make sure and see what works with people. So, we've been really pleased to do it. It has been hard work. It's taken us a while to get here, but I think what it's achieved and the learning we've got out of it will really help us to embed behavioural insight into the council more generally and to do it in other projects which, like I said, we are already starting off, so, really pleased that people have seen the value and that we can now use this in other circumstances. 


Rhian Gladman: So, to my final question, we like to finish the podcast episodes with a question, so, if you were in another council looking to implement a similar trial, what would be the three key learning points you'd want to share with that person who's listening to the podcast thinking cost of living, we really need to do some work to help our local residents in debt. What are your top three key learning points you'd hand over to them?


Katie: Specifically on debt or on just running a trial?


Rhian Gladman: Both, either. Both, all of the above.


Katie: All of them. Yes. So, I think in terms of running a trial, one thing that we learnt was to be really-, to also think quite a lot about the administration and the practical delivery of the trial, so, the day to day delivery, because the way we did it was quite manual, we didn't necessarily have the systems in place to do it and we were just trialling it and it was, you know, smallish cohorts and things. So, ensuring that the people, kind of, at the front line who were delivering this trial knew what they were doing and we'd tested it fully and that that worked well. That caused us a few little hiccups but we managed to get over them. So, I think not only spending time planning and designing the trial but actually, you know, the day to day delivery part is just as important as the, kind of, background planning of it. So, really focus on that. In terms of debt generally, we found that, you know, although contact rates were improved it's making sure that we don't think about debt in one specific route, so, it is only about payment or it is only about support, they're very interlinked and they're very interlinked with other things. So, being able to measure those links in a way that we are able to with data sharing and keeping people's privacy and things like that, the more we can do on that to understand people's situation and give them the right support, whether that be through letters, or trials or phone calls, or, whatever it may be, I think my advice would just be to just try lots of different things. You don't necessarily need to run it as a randomised control trial, just have a go, you know, develop something reasonably quickly, come up with some measures, use some good behavioural insight, some, you know, learnings from what behavioural science tells us and just have a go at testing different things on a small scale. See what works for your area, your community, because they may vary across areas as well.


So, yes, I think really just-, we know that this works. There are lot of examples of it working generally. We can show it works within debt but it doesn't have to be a big trial. You can do this as more of a day to day thing and get more people to understand it. And have a go, because in the end even if it has a one percent increase that is still a benefit to your residents. So, it's worth it.


Rhian Gladman: That's fantastic. Thank you so much Katie. Thank you for being with us today and sharing this really timely project and that other councils will definitely be interested in learning more about. Thanks again for your time.


Katie: Thanks again.


Rhian Gladman: So, the full Newham report is on our website at and if you search for 'behavioural insights' in the search box of the website you can go to all of our reports. It will also include the letters and the text messages that Katie mentioned, so, you can look at those and see if you want to start to trial those in your local area as well. Please do share the podcast with your friends and colleagues and thank you very much for listening.