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.


Let’s start talking about the best way to achieve social change

An article for Guardian’s Voluntary Sector Network by Joseph Blake this week suggested that grassroots campaigners are ‘more likely thank big charities to deliver real change’. Blake went on to say that if just a fraction of the funds that go to the largest charities were directed to the smallest it would make a huge difference.

One can argue over whether there is evidence to support this argument, but my experience of over 20 years of working in the charity sector, both with small grassroots groups and larger charities, leads me to subscribe to the view that ‘small is beautiful’ when it comes to social change. But there are caveats to that…

Successful campaigns that realise genuine social change at a transformative scale, tend not to be small. They can be grassroots in conception and distributive and participative in their approach but they generally grow and lose at least some of those characteristics as they do so. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam – all huge international NGOs now with large infrastructure behind them and significant resources – all started out as small grassroots campaigns. Things change. And sometimes they have to.

The argument that more funding should be directed at small local community groups is not a new one – indeed I spent much of my time as Urban Forum Chief Executive conveying this message to government and other funders. And I think Blake is absolutely right in suggesting that just a small redistribution of funds from big to small would make a tremendous difference to social justice.

But it’s worth noting, as Paul Slatter pointed out on twitter, that much of the £64bn that goes to registered charities is for delivering services rather than campaigning. Indeed if the Coalition has their way the amount going to charities for campaigning would probably be zero. Organisations like the National Coalition for Independent Action have long argued that delivering public services under contract severely compromises the independence of the charity sector to speak out and advocate strongly for change. It’s a position I have some sympathy with, though I’ve never felt personally inhibited from speaking out because of funding received from government or anyone else.

Many in the not for profit sector accept and advocate for the arguments set out in the Spirit Level – that inequality in society is bad for all of society, affluent and poor alike, and that the more equal a society is, the better it is for everyone. I find the evidence compelling and have regularly used it to support the cause of social justice. However, I also believe that the same arguments apply equally to the inequality of the not for profit sector – namely that inequality within the sector is unhealthy and bad for all those committed to social justice and social change. Far fewer Spirit Level advocates seem concerned with that sectorial inequality though. And that concerns me.

The Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure’s published its report last week, and I think that the role of infrastructure in supporting the redistribution of power and wealth within the sector is key. At a national level, in particular, there has been a tendency for the larger and better resourced charities and NGOs to influence the agendas of the national bodies that exist to reflect the VCS’s interests. Government too has for some time preferred to listen to the larger organisations than to hear the voices of smaller grassroots groups. The demise of Urban Forum is just one example of this.

Big Society was, we were told, about platoons of small community groups and local people coming to the fore. It was about bottom-up change.

Sadly, in reality, it has proven to be fool’s gold, with the smaller charities continuing to be excluded from the party and crazy wasteful vanity projects like the Big Society Network hovering up millions of pounds of public money.

As we go in to a general election knowing whatever the outcome, funding will be tight, perhaps it’s time for a debate about the importance of social change and if we consider it to be important, what the best way of achieving it might be?

Community rights vs Free schools

Community rights and free schools both make a lot of people nervous. Many people see them as ‘privatisation by the back door’ and a deliberate attempt to dismantle long established public services. To be honest I also share this concern, believing that there is a real danger of private sector companies scooping up contracts to run our public services and suck profits out. However I believe we can reduce this risk by ensuring there are high quality alternatives that are not driven by a profit motive.

Working on the community rights agenda during the lengthy passage of the Localism Bill, I saw a great deal of nervousness. In research we did at Urban Forum, we found that two thirds of community groups thought that the Right to Challenge would lead to greater private sector service delivery. However the response to this risk from many in the not for profit sector was highly pragmatic. Was there a way, they asked, for us to reduce this risk? Or even more than that, was there actually an opportunity for us to benefit from the policy? For many the response had clearly been to conclude that there is a way of using the right to challenge to enable charities, community groups and social enterprises to successfully bid to deliver services.

So, despite huge reservations, the overall response from civil society to the community rights agenda has been to see a glass half full. Or perhaps, if not half full, then at least an opportunity to have a good drink.

I don’t think people have particularly changed their minds…but the pragmatism of the not-for-profit sector has sought ways to turn the policy into a force for good.

The contrast with free schools, which I’ve been working on more recently, could not be more stark. Many of the same VCS people who have decided to do what they can to make community rights work, along with Teachers and other education professionals view free schools in a wholly negative light. No doubt there are key differences between them and perhaps there are good reasons not to embrace free schools. But there appears to be something inconsistent at play here.

Many free school objectors talk about privatisation, but that is just like community rights. So what has made sector leaders respond far more positively to community rights (albeit in a somewhat guarded way) than they do to free schools?

Could it be emotional? Our schools are precious to the British psyche and any perceived threat will be strongly opposed. But are our other public services valued less? I wouldn’t have thought so.

Or could it be that free schools are being set up by private companies tht many fear so much? That could be the case, and certainly I am nervous about the growing numbers of companies seeking profit that are setting up new schools.

But my reaction to that situation (coupled with local circumstances that leave comprehensive education in desperately short supply) is to make sure there is an alternative on offer. The alternative could be many schools being set up by parents and community groups that are community hubs and become a focal point, or hub, for community life.

Free schools do not have to be bad. They do not have to be good either. But I believe they have the potential to enable socially-minded groups to establish outstanding schools that can improve outcomes for children.

I am not for one minute suggesting we should not speak out against things we believe to be wrong. If public services are being dismantled then we must voice our concerns. But we also need to be realistic in where we are…and at present there is little prospect of Labour reversing the free schools approach (though I imagine some posturing and finessing would be likely). Remember this is a policy approach that was instigated by Labour with their academies programme. They may not like aspects of it (like the potential for private sector firms to dominate) but I see no prospect of them dismantling it. Like Community Rights, it may be changed under a different government, but the broad thrust of policy is likely to remain intact.

So we have a choice. Oppose free schools (or community rights) in all their forms and fight to oppose them, or find ways to bend the policy to produce the sort of outcomes we want in education and public services. Me, I’m going for the latter.

The pragmatism seen in response to Community Rights is sorely lacking when it comes to free schools. The government’s motivation may be dubious, the language may be wrong and the implementation may be clunky, but can we really afford to ignore the potential?


Social Enterprise offers no guarantee of better public services

On Saturday mornings I take my children swimming. We go to a large sports centre that used to be run by the council. These days it’s run by a social enterprise, though unless you’re ‘in the know’ about these sorts of things you’d be unlikely to notice. The social enterprise was spun off by a local authority some years ago – this is, according to the government’s Big Society vision, the future of public services.

The staff at the centre are pleasant (mostly), the teachers are as excellent as they always were, the management is, well, rubbish (not to put too fine a point on it) and the customer service is poor. And that’s important – and more than me just venting my spleen about shoddy service – because we mustn’t kid ourselves into believing that social enterprises offer any guarantee of better services for people as we merrily go about spinning off public sector services into workers cooperatives and not for profit organisations. The end result, from a citizen’s perspective, may not improve; in fact it could even get worse. Like the public and private sector, the not for profit sector varies….some are good, some not so good (and it’s not a given that the best quality offering is always the most successful…remember Betamax?).


okay, so I realise this is a gratuitous use of a pic of some cool retro-tech 🙂   

That’s not to say that social enterprises don’t have other qualities and benefits – they do. One strength that they have is a community asset lock, which is a fancy way of saying that they serve a social purpose, rather than serving the interests of shareholders. The primacy of the profit motive in private enterprise has some benefits too, but to my mind, a focus on social objectives is a good thing for a public service to have at its heart, but it’s not the same as delivering a better quality service. Of course this raises an important question; do we care more about the quality of public services that are delivered or what the organisation that delivers the service does with the profits?

Of course that rather presupposes that social enterprises are actually generating any profits! There are certainly some social enterprises making money (and a handful of household brands spring to mind) but there are also a huge number who are highly dependent on grants, donations, government funding and philanthropy to sustain themselves. That’s okay – lots of charities are reliant on grants and no one thinks the worse of them for it (except maybe the government with its questionable rhetoric of ‘the sectors’ dependence on the state’). But it is somewhat disingenuous to hide behind the banner of ‘enterprise’ whilst operating in a not-too-dissimilar fashion to the average (and much less ‘sexy’) charity.

Similarly, there are substantial numbers of social enterprises that are not tremendously ‘social’ in their endeavours – benefiting very few people in need or serving their beneficiaries poorly (or tenuously). Again this is not something exclusive to the social enterprise sector…some charities are run as if they were personal fiefdoms rather than agencies afforded the privilege of charitable status in order to serve their beneficiaries’ needs. However, to see the hyperbole surrounding social enterprise you’d be forgiven for believing that social enterprises are universally enterprising and socially driven and this is simply not the case.

Some social enterprises benefit a lot of people but don’t actually make money (at times, if not consistently, this is been the situation for the Big Issue – often, quite rightly, held up as one of the exemplars for the sector). Others do make real money but provide benefit to few people (okay…I am generally prepared to speak my mind, but even I’m not going to get myself into even more hot water by naming the organisation I’m thinking of…so you’ll have to come up with your own examples!). Both of these things are okay. In fact they’re very good when compared with some of the alternatives. But the label ‘social enterprise’ is, in both instances, misleading.

The government (and for that matter the last lot too) seems to see social enterprise as the answer to public service reform, funding for the not for profit sector and pretty much everything else. And it’s easy to see the attraction – save money and be seen to be supporting good causes (and I mentioned saving money, right?). Social enterprises, for their part, are generally happy to keep quiet, pick up the cheques and concentrate on doing the things they want to do…and who can blame them? Social enterprise is a small part of overall business in the UK (and only accounts for a modest proportion of the not for profit sector) and whilst I believe there’s significant growth potential, I don’t believe it will ever dominate our economy.

Meanwhile we seem to leave the commercial sector more or less to itself to generate profit for private investors, often with a cost to society at large and the taxpayer in particular. A bank branch in a poor neighbourhood may be regarded as ‘commercial unviable’, but the costs to society of the financial exclusion suffered by that community are ultimately borne by the state. If anything like as much political and financial backing were put into making private sector businesses more social as goes in to supporting social enterprise we could achieve real transformative positive social and economic change.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has not improved substantially over recent years. You only have to read the Centre for Responsible Credit’s report on bank’s CSR programmes to see how poorly they fare – even in comparison with their overseas contemporaries. There are some honourable exceptions and moves to develop more holistic CSR programmes that are integrated with corporate plans, supply chains, culture and practice, but these are the exceptions. For the most part they are little more than glorified marketing strategies, bolted on to corporate plans as a way to make companies look good and employees feel good.

If we want to improve public services, to support and build assets and resources among deprived communities, stimulate social action and create a modern economy fit for the 21st Century, then we need to be honest about the respective strengths and weaknesses of different approaches. Until we do so we will carry on allowing some businesses, some charities and some social enterprises to get away with poorly serving social interests.

Toby Blume