How a simple letter got people online – saving Essex Council £20,000 a year

Essex County Council, like most other councils, spend a lot of money processing paper. Some of that goes on administering Blue Badge permits that allow disabled drivers to park closer to where they’re going. With the continued pressure on public service budgets, it’s hardly surprising that they should want to look at whether they can reduce their costs and make the process cheaper and more efficient. An obvious way to do this is 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.

So we set out to help them test, through a Randomised Controlled Trial, whether small changes to the Blue Badge renewal process could encourage channel shift – that is moving people from one channel (paper/face-to-face) to another (online).

The results showed it worked – passing standard tests of statistical significance.

Just by making small changes to the renewal letter that goes out to Blue Badge holders we managed to reduce the numbers of people that renewed by post by almost 20% (8.6 percentage points).  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.

Blue Badge renewal by type

Blue Badge renewal by type

By simplifying the letter – stripping away anything we didn’t feel was absolutely necessary to include and making it clear to the reader precisely what they had to do – we made it more likely that people used the online renewal process.

Martha Lane-Fox, in her 2010 role as Digital Champion, looked at the costs (and savings) of government conducting business online, rather than face-to-face and paper. She estimated that the public sector would save £12 for every transaction conducted online rather than by post.

For Essex that figure would mean that this small change to the renewal letter will save them around £20,000 a year. Of course set against cuts of £50m this year it’s a drop in the ocean. But if every service or process were able to find similar efficiencies for a fraction of the costs of implementing them it would soon add up.

Simplification wasn’t the only effective way we found of reducing paper renewals. We also found that by telling people that renewing online saved the Council money and helped protect frontline services also encouraged channel shift. This small change in the renewal letter reduced paper renewals by over 18% (7.7 percentage points).

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).

Post-trial renewals by type

Post-trial renewals by type

The trial has helped the Council move toward online renewals for blue badges and we hope it can act as a model for the more general transformation of services across the council.

Small things can make a big difference.

Read the full report on our online Blue Badge renewal trial.


Revitalising our democracy – new political parties or just changing our politicians?

Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan was quoted in the Independent saying that political parties neglect young voters in favour of targeting older voters.

The reasons for this include changing demographics, with more older people and proportionately fewer younger people, and the fact that the over 65s are far more likely to vote than those aged 18-24 – 44% compared with 76% turnout at the 2010 general election.

Mr Khan said the way to address this problem was to encourage young people in Britain to vote from an early age. But he added that politics as a profession was not reaching out to young voters – precisely because they were less likely to vote.”

Interestingly Nesta’s chief executive Geoff Mulgan chose as his prediction for 2015 the creation of radical new online political parties. Citing internet-based political parties in many other European countries – such as the Pirate Parties of Sweden, Germany and Iceland, Five Star in Italy and Podemos in Spain – to predict that “…the aftermath of the UK election will see the first Internet-age parties emerge in the UK”.

Now you could argue that predicting that something already happening all over Europe will happen in the UK is hardly going out on a limb. In fact there are a number of examples in the UK of similar sorts of things happening already, such as the Open Politics Manifesto as well as plenty of organisations using the internet to increase participation and strengthen democracy, like the UK Open Government Forum.

But I did wonder about the connection between these two things – young people being ignored by politicians and the (possible) rise of open network parties. Young people are more likely than older people to be online and they are also less likely to vote. Is there a relationship here?

Given the paucity of digital offerings from the UK’s political parties perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that voter turnout is lower among young digital-consumers. [NB I am speculating as I do not know whether there’s any correlation between voter turnout and the use of digital, compared with wider demographics such as age]. I remember how we were told that the last general election would be fought ‘online’ but all we got was a forgettable animation of the Labour Party’s manifesto. Actually, we also got the televised debates and ‘I agree with Nick’ – remember when Mr Clegg wasn’t considered an electoral liability? – and the accompanying chatter on social media.

As Sadiq Khan says, politics is not reaching out to young people because they don’t vote. Perhaps that’s why the parties grasp of digital engagement and social media is so poor – as they (crudely and I would have thought incorrectly) assume that it’s not where their ‘key voters’ are at. If the internet is a place inhabited only by non-voting young people, then why bother wasting time and money with digital?

Of course this creates something of a catch 22: young online people don’t vote because they’re not engaged, so political parties don’t engage them because they don’t vote, so they don’t vote because they’re not engaged and so on…

I realise this is super-simplistic as young people are not synonymous with online and nor do I believe that a lack of digital nous on the part of political parties can be blamed for lower voter turnout among under 25s. But I still feel there’s a connection there between the ways traditional parties communicate and interact and the disconnect many young people feel from party politics.

However I am not convinced that new political parties are the answer, or that there’s tremendous appetite to stand for Parliament – which is after all the core purpose of a political party. Being interested in politics – being politicised – is very different to wanting to go into politics. Whilst I have found young people highly politicised, I’ve seen growing disaffection with the UK’s particular brand of party politics. We need to change our politicians as much as we need to change our political parties.

Our politics attracts people who aspire to be ‘professional politicians’ – certainly at the national level – too often from the conveyor belt of Private School, Oxbridge, a brief spell at a think-tank followed by working for a Minister and then standing for Parliament. Without a broader range of perspectives and real life experience we’re unlikely to address the disaffection with our politicians at the heart of our ‘democratic deficit’.