Making a Difference – Using Nudge to Budge Compliance

How small changes can deliver big benefits

Editor’s Note: In our live presentation of Case Management: The Definitive Guide, we touched on Nudge Theory. Given its new application to the compliance industry, we’d like to go further in detail. Written by our UK correspondent, Keith Read, former CCO of British Telecom and Convercent’s European Director.

Keith Read, Dir., Europe Convercent
Keith Read, Dir., Europe

Compliance communications

Delivering effective communications is a key component of any compliance programme – yet is one of the perennial challenges for virtually every compliance officer, irrespective of industry and geography; it is a challenge because implementing an effective communications regime hinges on a host of interconnected issues, including messaging frequency, volume, complexity, channels and tailoring, plus effective stakeholder management

Moreover, whilst there is plenty of material around on ‘effective compliance communications’, there is very little that details the three communications routes – direct, indirect and subliminal – that organisations can use to deliver compliance communications. Typical examples of these routes would be e-mail (direct), poster campaigns (indirect) and compliance branding (subliminal); re-branding our simple compliance helpline as VeRoniCA – our Virtual Regulatory Compliance Assistant – had the result that it opened up a whole series of other communications opportunities, such that ‘Ask VeRoniCA’ came into common company parlance

However, as the then CECO, I became concerned that our communications programme was simply not effective – based on both anecdotal and factual evidence that many of our communications were being largely ignored, skim-read at 4-55pm on a Friday night or, worse still, deleted without reading.

I’m sure those issues are familiar to many people reading this but, as a consequence of that evidence, we went ahead and experimented with ‘nudge’ – achieving major improvements in impact from modest changes to channels, language, techniques and terminology, as the examples above show

How to Nudge

Most of our early communications were written in the language that came to us the easiest – ‘business speak’ – and were prepared largely generically for a company-wide audience. For us as the compliance team this approach meant that we could write something, involve legal, HR and any other stakeholders to get it cleared, and then simply send it out; job done! Unfortunately, it wasn’t, as we saw from the above; in truth, the perception of compliance – often seen as the ‘business prevention department’ – means that any related communications have to be powerful, compelling and stand-out in order to achieve their often simple objective

Firstly, we set out to build the foundations; for example, we created our ‘Compliance Covenant’ – essentially a pragmatic agreement between the company, the compliance team and employees that compliance was important, why and what was required. Thereafter, we developed our messaging so that it included benchmarking statements such as ‘93 percent of the company has already completed their training’ – but it could be argued that 93 percent of a 150,000-employee company means relatively little, so we used greater granularity and direct numeric comparisons wherever we could. We also used Plain English ( and similar tools to achieve to easy-to-understand, direct and straightforward communications; their simplicity made them both inclusive and stand-out. Additionally, we took every opportunity to use alternative channels, such as short, direct 160-character text messages, which proved very successful.

In common with many companies, we experienced a formidable logistical challenge in training those employees who were on the road or in warehouses, and did not have straightforward access to a work-based PC; taking groups of these employees or contractors off production, distribution or customer service can also have very direct and immediate effects on performance.  As a consequence, we implemented a process nudge – by creating telephone training, where employees undertake their basic training using just a phone and can do so in downtime or, indeed, from home. This was one of our most successful programmes, not least of all because – unexpectedly – by allowing the training to be undertaken at home it created an environment of trust

Much of our nudging involved experimentation. As we have seen, minor terminology changes can make a huge difference – and sometimes brought surprising benefits; crucially, however, those communications benefits came at zero cost, and often hinged on just simple re-phrasing. Why not use nudge to budge your compliance programme?

Examples of Nudge

  1. A trial with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs – the UK IRS – showed how telling late taxpayers that most people in their towns had already paid their tax increased payment rates by 15 percentage points. When rolled out this will generate £30 Million of extra revenue to the government annually.
  2. A trial with the UK’s Courts Service showed how personalised text messages were six times more effective than final warning letters at prompting fine payments. The Courts Service estimates that this will save some 150,000 bailiff interventions and £30 Million each year when it is rolled out across the country.
  3.  In one trial, a letter sent to non-payers of vehicle taxes was changed to use plainer English, along the lines of ‘pay your tax or lose your car’. As a further experiment, in some cases, the letter was further personalised by including a photo of the car in question. The re-written letter alone doubled the number of people paying the tax; the re-write with the photo tripled it.
  4.  Simple changes in language can have very marked effects. A study into the teaching of technical drawing in French schools found that if the subject was called ‘geometry’ boys did better, but if it was called ‘drawing’ girls did equally well or better.

Learn more about Nudge Theory in our latest webinar or download the slides.

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