Written communications – in the form of letters, emails, notices on websites and other correspondence – oil the wheels of government, helping ensure that people comply with legislation and take actions that benefit individuals and society as a whole.
The way that these letters, emails and other correspondence are verbally framed and visually presented has a huge impact on how we behave – or comply – with written requests. In fact, a growing body of behaviour change literature has identified several potent techniques that can be used in written correspondence to influence behaviour.
And it’s having a remarkably positive impact on how people respond to unpalatable requests.
In the United Kingdom, for instance, tax authorities collected £5.6 billion more in overdue revenue in a single financial year (2012) by using behavioural techniques. They’ve also helped reduce doctors’ over-prescription of antibiotics and opioids, encouraged more Victorians to use online e-government services, and inspired people to save more money for emergencies.
Dr Nick Faulkner is a research fellow with the Monash Sustainable Development Institute's BehaviourWorks Australia. He says governments are rapidly adopting these techniques because they’re cheap to implement, can have large benefits and avoid non-compliance costs.
“The public isn’t all that concerned about non-compliance until they realise that their taxes are paying for it,” says Dr Faulkner. “It leads to huge sums of lost taxes that could be used to fund essential services, with taxation being just one example.
“Non-compliance has other serious consequences,” he adds. “For example, it can lead to unfit or uninsured drivers remaining on our roads, and can inhibit regulators’ ability to do their jobs effectively. It’s something that we need to pay attention to.”
“The public isn’t all that concerned about non-compliance until they realise that their taxes are paying for it.”
While public administrators have started to apply individual behaviour change techniques in their correspondence, until now no one has captured the most effective of them in a practical framework that they, and other communications professionals, can use to produce impactful written correspondence.
Model of behaviour change
In the journal Public Administration Review, BehaviourWorks has presented the first model of behaviour change specifically designed to help public administrators use behavioural techniques in their written requests. The framework, called INSPIRE, captures and describes seven powerful and proven techniques in a simple mnemonic:
- Implementation intentions
- Procedural justice
- Reputation and credibility, and
In brief, implementation intentions represent the gap between people’s stated intentions and their actual behaviour – disparities that include ill-defined or overly ambitious intentions, external distractions, weak motivations or simply forgetting to act.
Norms are “rules and standards that are understood by members of a group and that guide and/or constrain social behaviour without the force of laws”, while salience, in this context, represents the better use of visual stimuli, including colours, teasers and personalisation.
Procedural justice centres on the justice and transparency of authorities’ decision-making processes, and on individuals’ treatment throughout these processes.
Incentives, which are either monetary (i.e. cash, cheques) or non-monetary (e.g. prizes or gifts), can increase the uptake of the desired behaviour, while reputation and credibility involve the development and delivery of messages from believable and trustworthy sources.
Then, of course, there’s ease – making compliance easy by ensuring that written instructions are clear, easy to read and that the requested behaviour is straightforward to perform.
INSPIRE has already been implemented by several Victorian government agencies, including VicRoads, which used the techniques to increase drivers’ compliance with medical fitness to drive reviews by 23 per cent.
The Victorian Department of Health and Human Services also used INSPIRE techniques to increase influenza vaccination rates by 34 per cent in Indigenous communities, and increase the percentage of secondary school students who received the human papillomavirus vaccine.
While the framework specifically addresses the needs of public administrators, Dr Faulkner says it may also be useful for communications professionals working across other industries and contexts.
“INSPIRE will make it easier for communicators to use established behavioural science techniques to maximise their impact,” he says.
“It’s unique in the published literature as an integrated model for improving compliance through written communication.”
BehaviourWorks Australia is a leading behaviour change research enterprise within the Monash Sustainable Development Institute at Monash University. BWA operates as a consortium with several leading government agencies and provides research services to other organisations on a project-by-project basis. Visit: behaviourworksaustralia.org.