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Simplifying government forms will help public sector harness big data

Survey by YouGov and SAS reveals how government agencies can improve its data collection on UK citizens through maximising response rates to official communications

30 May 2012 - New online research from YouGov and SAS, the leader in business analytics software and services, has found that more than four in five Britons (82%) have never knowingly provided false information in a government agency form – putting the public sector in prime position to collect a central repository of reliable and valuable 'big data'.

The 'Communicating with the Citizen' survey of 2,160 British citizens showed that if government departments maximised response rates to official forms of communication, the public sector would obtain high quality, accurate data on its citizens, which could drive significant value through high-performance analytics (HPA).

To enable public servants to harness this untapped value, simplifying the communication process will be key – with ease of completing forms a recurring theme among those surveyed when asked what steps government agencies could take to improve communication with the general public. Respondents noted that the top four ways government could maintain or improve its communication with the general public were:

  • Making it clearer what information is actually being asked for/required (69%)

  • Use of more simplistic language in documentation (54%)

  • The ability to complete and submit forms/ payments online (50%)

  • Highlighting of key information in bold or "strong" colours in documentation (31%)

"We know that there are limits on the amount of information that can be processed at one time. So it comes as little surprise that Britons would like government agencies to clarify exactly what information they are seeking and use simple language to do so in official forms of communication," said Gerry Leonidas, senior lecturer in typography at the University of Reading.

"Likewise, we actively seek meaning in the world around us – so in a document we tend to see significance in the way things are arranged and in their relative prominence. The high volume of participants who listed these as improvement areas for the public sector to focus on, is evidence that simplified government agency forms will make the process of gathering and providing information easier for everyone."

The importance attached to being able to communicate online is also significant, and supports the Government Digital Service's aim to deliver more online services. It also enables more efficient data capture by avoiding the need to digitalise data which originates in hard copy format.

Bernard Baker, director, public sector at SAS UK & Ireland, said: "If the public sector adjusts its communication methods and tools in line with this feedback, not only will response rates improve, but so will the consistency and uniformity of the data being collected. By sourcing data of such a high calibre, individual agencies and central government will be better equipped to segment data, perform better profiling of citizens and improve overall citizen intelligence through high-performance analytics. Gaining the ability to identify subgroups within the community and then pinpoint the best methods to communicate with those specific demographics will put public servants in a much stronger position to provide citizens with improved services."

A recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research and SAS forecasted that if central government can apply high-performance analytics to big data so as to improve its citizen intelligence, it could provide a £6.7bn economic benefit over the next five years.

The 'Communicating with the Citizen' study showed that channel of communication was also highly relevant for maximising data capture, so understanding how people wish to be contacted is key. Despite the growth in online and mobile communication channels in recent years, a hard copy letter (50%) is the favoured method for receiving general government agency communications, followed by email (37%). Text messages (39%) and phone calls (23%) from a government agency were the most likely channels to be ignored.

The research results indicate that the public sector should focus on incentivising people to pay fines/bills or complete forms on time over penalising them. When participants were asked to choose which three options would most encourage them to pay council tax on time, 70% said receiving a discount and 27% said being entered into lotteries or prize draws. Only 24% said being advised that any future failure to pay on time would be seen as an "active choice" and incurring a late payment penalty fee would encourage them to pay on time.

"Our survey has found that negative incentives, or 'sticks', such as naming and shaming late payers or penalty charges, have less of an impact than positive incentives, or 'carrots', such as discounts, prize lotteries and higher rebates. If the public sector takes these results on board to improve citizen data collection and citizen profiling, it will enhance services and significantly reduce operational costs associated with debt collection and fraud detection," concluded Baker.

About SAS

SAS is the leader in business analytics software and services, and the largest independent vendor in the business intelligence market. Through innovative solutions, SAS helps customers at more than 55,000 sites improve performance and deliver value by making better decisions faster. Since 1976 SAS has been giving customers around the world The Power to Know® .

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