Using behavioural insights to redesign and rethink council tax registration – Dacorum Borough Council

Dacorum Borough Council moved its Council Tax registration process from paper-based to online, and in the process used behavioural insights to redesign the layout and wording of the applications.

Efficiency and income generation

Knowing from behavioural insights that one change in a person’s life is likely to make it easier to make other changes the council also took the opportunity to rethink Council Tax registration. It has now been designed as an opportunity to connect with new residents and landlords and direct them into services including a free introductory gym/swim pass with the local sports trust, and partner services such as GP surgeries.

The challenge
Our Council Tax registration process was based entirely on paper forms. This was a slow process, and expensive in terms of staff time, printing and postage.

It also failed to make the most of the opportunity to use contact made by new residents and landlords, and gave a poor first impression of us as an organisation.

A solution connecting to our back-office systems had been in the pipeline for years, and this has reduced the urgency to make changes. However, we decided to redesign the process in order to make improvements for now and to ensure that any new elements would sit in a well-designed and tested wider process.

The solution
Initially the solution focussed on providing an opportunity for residents to register for Council Tax online. The existing paper form was lengthy and confusing in places as it tried to cover every eventuality. We decided to split the form into four separate forms for different scenarios. The result has been that the questions relating to empty properties and updates from landlords now only appear on their own forms, and not on the over 92% of forms filled in by new tenants and owner-occupiers.

The ‘declaration that the information was true’ question was also moved to the beginning of the forms as behavioural insights tell us that people are more likely to fill in a form honestly if they have already declared that they will, whereas they will happily sign a declaration if they have already been dishonest. We also did some work to clarify the text of the forms. Some more technical definitions were removed and replaced with clearer descriptions. Firstly these were tested with non-experts within the Council, then when the forms went live the responses were monitored closely to check that they had been filled in correctly, which led to a couple of further minor changes such as creating a separate postcode field to stop people putting their postcode into the ‘date of move’ box.

The next stage was to make the most of the opportunity presented by new residents contacting us. We know from behavioural insights that when individuals go through one change in their life they are more likely to make other changes and stick to them. There are also a number of other services that we want residents to register for or discover more about when they move in. These include internal services such as voter registration as well as partner services such as health services that will both help residents and ultimately to also reduce demand onto local public services by improving health outcomes for local people.

On completing their registration form new tenants and owner-occupiers are now taken to a page that tells them when they should expect a bill to arrive and that we will be in contact if we have any questions. The addition that we have made to this page is that it now also includes a form for residents to sign up for our monthly e-newsletter and to receive a free introductory gym or swim pass from the local sports trust.

This partnership agreement with the local sports trust allows them to target new residents at a time of change in their life. Linking residents into opportunities for physical activity will help to improve their health and their connections in the community. In practice this works by us forwarding the contact details that they give in this additional form to the sports trust if they request a sports pass.

On completing this form, residents are then taken to a page containing the links that we think they will need on moving into the area. This covers internal services, such as seeing how recycling works in the area that they are more likely to have an interest in early on, and will help to encourage further behaviour change e.g increasing their recycling rate. It also includes relevant partner and external services. We have created a shortened URL for this page so that residents can easily return as it is unlikely they will follow all of the links in a single sitting.

If the empty property or landlord notification forms are filled in then the user is taken down a different route and directed to information about our help to rent scheme which links private landlords with Council tenants.

Once these changes had been made we went through a process of reviewing the different ways that residents might try to contact us about moving home. As part of this we changed our separate ‘moving home’ page to remove the link to the ‘I am moving’ website which had proved inconsistent and was propping up our use of paper forms, and this link was replaced with buttons to register for Council Tax, to register to vote and to visit the Welcome to Dacorum page.

The impact
From a soft launch in mid-May 2017 we have received almost 450 applications online. As we further encourage the use of online forms we expect this to translate to at least 2,500 applications over a year. This will save us significant time in relaying information and chasing missing or incorrect information as we have included basic data validation within the forms, and asking for email addresses will make future contact easier.

Providing the opportunity for residents to claim a single person discount through the initial form instead of having to complete a further form has also already led to over 100 fewer forms and transactions. We estimate the total saving so far across the changes above to be approximately 50 hours of staff time (including mailroom time) and £150 in printing and postage. The largest benefits however are likely to be harder to measure.

Through the nudge into our e-newsletter signup and a sports pass options (which were introduced slightly later) we have had 91 newsletter signups and 80 sports passes issued to households over five weeks. Continuing at the same rate we will sign up over 900 households to receive our digital newsletters and provide an incentive for over 800 households to couple a change of home with increased physical activity, all at no cost to us.

We also hope to give our residents a better first experience with the Council, and to link them into the services that they need when they are most likely to act upon the information. Much of this is not practical to measure, but through establishing a positive first impression to ease future interactions, and through numerous small behaviour changes we expect to incrementally make life easier for our residents and improve community resilience and self-sufficiency.

How is the new approach being sustained?
Even as we look to integrate new software that connects to our back-office systems we will be sustaining the connections linking through to further signups and information. We will also be looking to customise the new solution as far as possible to make use of the behavioural insights and wording that we have tested.

We will be looking at including other options in the introductory offer such as free bike check-ups and links to public transport in order to further encourage positive behaviour change at a key change-point.

Linking through to community groups and support services will be developed further, with the next stage including both more information and a more visually appealing layout. Where possible we will link through to the homepages of relevant community groups such as our local sports partnership, volunteering centre and organisations such as the U3A.

We are taking the principle of signposting at key life stages further, and looking at the possibility of linking this community information to change of circumstances forms. This would necessarily be done in a gentle way with a message along the lines of ‘Sometimes when people’s circumstances change they want to know more about the community and support groups available in their area, if you would like to know more please see our community networks page.’

There has also been further work on putting revenues forms online, including SPD and business rates, which have been put online following the same principles of user-centred design and testing.

We will continue to explore ways to encourage online as the first choice of our residents. This includes working with our housing service and we may trial business cards with the dacorum.gov.uk/welcome web address that will make it easier for estate agents and housing associations to share this information and appear to offer a slightly more holistic service to their customers.

Lessons learned

  • Don’t overcomplicate the change. Once we had agreement in principle to make the changes we didn’t create a large project team but relied on one Revenues team leader and one officer from the Innovation and Improvement team to each manage their side of the change and bring in and consult with other members of staff as necessary. We also took the project in stages and didn’t attempt to implement all of our ideas at once.
     
  • Repeatedly test and monitor. We developed forms that we thought would work perfectly but it is very easy to miss the ways that others may interpret your wording. Repeated testing and then monitoring when the forms went live has helped us to significantly cut down the mistakes made on forms.
     
  • Understand the customer journey. Having changed the forms we were surprised how many paper copies we were still receiving. Searching online for ‘moving house Dacorum’ pointed us to a page on our own website that redirected to the ‘I am moving’ website, which officers responded to by sending out paper copies to the address. We have replaced this with links to our own council tax and voter registration and will keep on tracking down where residents may be directed to use paper methods to encourage digital first.
     
  • Follow the simplest solutions. We looked into a variety of ways to link the sports offer to signups, including codes and checking that residents had also registered to vote. In the end the best solution was the simplest; referring residents on to the sports trust who do their own monitoring to check that they haven’t given our passes to the same person/address already.
     
  • Recognising the value of our connections. The sports pass offer is a good incentive for residents, but it is also a win-win for ourselves and the sports trust in getting more people physically active. The connections we have with residents are very valuable to others and, provided it is completely optional for residents, they are a great way to link to partner services.
     
  • Developing in-house expertise. Having an in-house team with knowledge of behavioural insights has been invaluable in ensuring input throughout the project as it evolves and understanding how it connects across services.

Contacts
Andrew Marsh - Service Redesign and Improvement Lead Officer
Charles Berry Ottaway - Innovation and Improvement Team Leader

Relevant links
Dacorum Borough Council: register for your council tax
Dacorum Borough Council: welcome to Dacorum