Think pieces

Dear Centrelink

Here's how to write a better letter

The Australian Government, via Centrelink, attempted a major behaviour change program with its ‘Online Compliance Intervention’. While it produced results – front page news coverage and a powerful public reaction – it’s probably not what was intended.

Data matching on a huge scale is a legitimate way governments try to maximise efficiency of services. In the Centrelink case, it was used to find discrepancies between the amounts welfare recipients reported as income in a given year and Tax Office records. It also promised to reduce time-consuming and expensive person-to-person interactions, like responding to mail, phone calls or face-to-face meetings.

Once the software detected a discrepancy, Centrelink issued something most of us dread – a standard letter.

Standard letters are still the main way governments interact with the general public. If you want to influence the behaviours of large groups in the community, you send them a letter. There’s a science to writing those ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ notes and, having conducted some work in this area, we thought we’d share our insights.

Cold, hard facts

Research tells us that people often view standard letters as cold, lacking in empathy and often written in a style that is complex and unclear.

For example, in Victoria, drivers are sometimes notified by mail that they need to submit a medical report to prove they are still medically capable of being in control of a vehicle. A letter telling you that your driving future is about to be decided by a doctor needs to be written carefully and since only about half of those sent these letters actually respond by the due date, BWA (BehaviourWorks Australia) was given the task of increasing compliance.

Simple and fair 

We developed and trialled a letter that made three main changes to the way the letter was written. The first was simplified messaging. We made it plain and direct. The second was to demonstrate ‘procedural fairness’ in the process, as evidence suggests that if people see a process as fair, they’re more likely to comply with it. Last was to show ‘interpersonal justice’, an academic term for basic understanding and empathy, as in, ‘We know this is tough to deal with and we don’t want to make it any harder than it needs to be’. 

The letters were re-written with the following key messages as headings: 

– What you need to do

– When you need to do it

– Why are we sending you this letter?

– Why do we impose suspensions?

– We do not want to make things difficult for you  

Simple, clear messages explaining why this is happening and showing empathy. They resulted in compliance rates (those submitting medical reports by the due date) increasing from 49 per cent to 62 per cent. The Australian Taxation Office used a similar approach in its drive to encourage payment of tax debt. This stuff works.

How is this applied to Centrelinks’ letters?

Let’s have a look at a few of their key lines and see if we can increase its efficacy as a call to action (going online to provide information): 

Important information about your employment income

– is bold, alarming, and ambiguous. How about –  

Our records show you may have been overpaid. If so, you may have to repay this debt. It’s important that you read, understand and respond to this letter. 

  • Text Hover

Robot letters via Flickr with thanks to Jim Bauer

The Centrelink letter goes on to say – 

What you need to do

Please check the enclosed employment income information

Confirm your employment income online before (date)

– which could be a little clearer and friendlier. What about – 

What you need to do

Check the figures on the next page to see if your income matches our records. Then, go online to confirm these figures at my.gov.au

Then it gets a little more intense – 

What you need to know

If you do not confirm your employment income online by (date), we will update your details using the enclosed employment income information. If the employment income you told us is not correct, this may result in a debt that you will need to repay.

Updating details could just be record keeping. ‘Debt’ and ‘repay’ are the key words here and don’t appear until well into the final paragraph. Serious news can still be clear and reassuring. Like – 

Why are we sending you this letter?

Data matching has revealed you may have been overpaid by Centrelink. Overpayments are considered debts, which is why we need to find out where this discrepancy lies.

Is this a debt notification?

No, but we do need you to take action to make sure your reported income matches our records. If there has been a mistake, we need your help to find it. Centrelink has a responsibility to all Australian taxpayers to recover overpayments where they have occurred.

We assume you deal honestly with Centrelink

Mistakes happen and we understand that there may be good reasons for this discrepancy. You will have opportunities to provide an explanation or appeal our decision if a debt arises. You can email us on (email address) or call xx xx xx.

Not rocket science 

Same message, but in a clearer and more compassionate form. It’s not rocket science, but it is behavioural science. Of course, when we say ‘this stuff works’, there are a few caveats – like if it’s sent to the wrong people (and the government estimates at 20 per cent of these letters are sent in error), the most well-chosen words won’t change a thing. 

And ironically, debt collection agencies are now being paid to engage in the same mail correspondence, phone calls and face-to-face confrontations this whole process was trying to avoid. 

For a more detailed study on improving standard letters, look for the INSPIRE paper on our website. 

Yours truly, warmest regards, BehaviourWorks Australia.