Using SMS in service delivery: a BETA way to do reminders and confirmations

By The Mandarin

December 13, 2017

Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government

“Small, simple changes in service delivery make a big difference.” That’s the word from two new trials conducted by the too-cleverly named Behavioural Insights Team of the Australian government (BETA) in partnership with the Department of Human Services.

The trials looked at whether SMS could help reassure parents that their child support forms had been received, and remind Australians looking for work to report any income earned. But that’s sort of obvious, so they also looked at what language is most effective in an SMS.

Here’s what they found in the study on confirmations:

“Parents will often follow up with a call to enquire if their form has been received …  we found the confirmation SMS not only reduced the number of parents who called (down by 11.3 percentage points), but if they did call, they would do so later (median time to call increased by 13 days). Based on these results, if everyone who submitted a change of assessment form received a confirmation SMS, there would be approximately 2,100 fewer phone calls made every year.

“The outcomes of this trial show how a small change in a traditional submission process could have a substantial impact on the overall experience for all parties involved. The confirmation SMS reduced the number of calls received by the Child Support Team, which in turn reduced call wait times for other Australians interacting with the Department. This was achieved without increasing the administrative burden on parents or the Department. The findings of this trial could be applied across a range of Human Services’ or other government programs where people are waiting for a response or an update.”

The trickier challenge is how to get people to do something when they’d perhaps rather not. Here’s what they found in the study on reminders:

“Because we know people can respond differently depending on how a message is framed, we also tested whether different reminder messages worked better than others. We designed three types of SMS reminders sent the day before the income report was due: a short and simple reminder (short group); a reminder emphasising the costs of not reporting (loss frame); and a reminder making the benefits of reporting on time more salient (gain frame). We also sent each message
in a personalised and non-personalised version.

“We tracked and measured the effect these messages had on income reporting and then compared these results with people who did not receive a reminder. We found sending any SMS reminder had a big impact, increasing the number of people who reported on time by 13.5 percentage points, with those who received an SMS reminder reporting sooner than those who did not. Some reminders also resulted in fewer payment cancellations (down by 1.7 percentage points).”

Why does this matter? Well in the case of DHS, there’s a lot of money being transferred that is tied to accurate information — information largely based on Australians keeping DHS informed of changes in circumstances. In 2016-17, the DHS’s child support agency oversaw more than $3.5 billion worth of transfers to support approximately 1.2 million children.

The cost of not improving service delivery is even greater in Newstart and Youth Allowance payments, which added up to $10.95 billion in 2016. The government has calculated that in any given fortnight over 80,000 people (or 9%) are late reporting their income and approximately 3100 people are so late their payments are cancelled.


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