Community of Practice: BI-ing letters

3 April 2017BIU Team

Categorycommunity of practice

Tagsbehavioural insights, letters

Governments send hundreds of thousands of letters to people each year asking them to do things, from paying speeding fines and taxes, providing information for welfare payments, alerting people to expiring licenses and registration and incoming tolls.

government communication

Despite the writers’ best intentions, letters from government don’t always generate the desired response. The earliest successful applications of behavioural insights (BI) involved using BI techniques to improve letters, for example by encouraging more people to pay their taxes and fines on time. BI has been applied in many more complex ways since then, but there are still many government letters that could be improved through its application.

At our first event for this year, we brought together people from a range of government agencies to reflect on what BI can offer in terms of writing better letters.


We started off looking at the most commonly-used BI techniques, including:

  • highlighting what you want people to do

  • writing in plain English

  • making it easy by breaking down the steps people should take

  • including a commitment device (as we did with our cancer screening trial)

  • making the letters attractive and easy to read using colour, headings, boxes, etc.

  • personalising the letters

  • highlighting the consequences of not doing the desired behaviour

Context-specific techniques

There are also a number of BI techniques that have been used in the past but only work in some contexts, and in some cases actually make things worse. These should ideally be thought through in the specific context of the letter that is being sent, and trialled to check if they are helping. These are:

  • social norms – emphasise that the majority of people do the desired behaviour

  • commission and omission – forgive a previous failure but emphasise that you will not forgive a future failure again

  • prosocial messaging – focusing on positive social impact of the desired behaviour

  • moral suasion – appeal to morality and ‘goodness’ of person

  • loss framing – focusing on costs or losses of non-compliance

  • grain framing – focusing on positive outcomes of compliance

  • scarcity – creating a sense of shortage or limited window to act

  • selection – creating a sense of the person being specially selected for the offer

  • emotional appeal – attempting to evoke positive or negative emotions

  • reciprocity – saying or implying that you have given the person something so they should repay in kind

  • imagery – using images to evoke positive or negative emotions

Some of these techniques may seem simple and obvious; however a lot of research goes into applying BI to each letter. We have to understand the issue and context, so we can identify which behaviour(s) we want to change and how best to change them. We then use this understanding to build insights and interventions that we test, learn from and adapt.

Future events

This was the first event in a series that we hope to run this year. We will be running different events for different audiences throughout the year.