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The Department of Internal Affairs' Service Innovation Lab recently helped the department's Rates Rebate Team move the rates rebate online application form from alpha to beta. That meant redesigning the form, trialling it with more local councils, and doing more research with people who apply for a rebate and councils who process the applications.

To read about past rates rebate work, check out these blog posts:

In this post, we’ll go into more detail about the extra research done with applicants and council staff.

Background: What is the Rates Rebate Scheme?

The Rates Rebate Scheme is a subsidy to help eligible people pay their property rates bill. It’s calculated using household income, the rates bill, and the number of people living in the household.

Every year, people apply by filling out a long, complex paper-based form, providing proof of income and getting their application witnessed by an authorised person.

The process is administered by local councils, who are then refunded by DIA.

Why do more research?

During the alpha phase, the Service Innovation Lab identified a need for deeper research and engagement to find out:

  • why people weren’t finishing their application
  • how to get more people applying for a rates rebate.

The beta project team wanted to know if the online application form would:

  • get more people applying
  • improve customer experience and satisfaction levels.

What we wanted to find out

The research team wanted to answer these questions:

  • What is the current state of awareness of rates rebates?
  • What are the best channels to raise awareness?
  • What are the best channels for getting more people to complete their application?
  • What is the digital skill level of people applying for a rates rebate?
  • What is confusing?
  • What stops people being able to complete their application?
  • What are the costs — including time, money, cognitive load, dignity?

How we did the research

The research involved:

  • online surveys for people visiting rates rebate pages on www.govt.nz
  • Google Analytics data
  • interviews with applicants and council staff
  • workshops with subject matter experts from DIA’s Rates Rebate Team and a Content Designer from DIA’s Government Information Services
  • observing how councils processed applications — and the unique system each council used.

For more detail about how observing analytics led to content changes and a better experience for users, see:

Rates Rebate — content changes lead to better experience, more users

What we learnt about who applies for a rates rebate

Most people who get a rates rebate also get NZ Superannuation.

In the 2017/18 rating year, 79% of all successful applicants were receiving NZ Superannuation.

Of the people who weren’t on superannuation but were applying for a rates rebate:

  • 14% were employed
  • 4% were on other benefits
  • 2% were unemployed.

Applicants live in:

  • private homes and pay their own rates
  • retirement villages where rates are paid by the village, and fees contribute to the cost of rates
  • company-share apartments where rates are paid by a board of directors who own the building and residents pay a fee to cover the cost of rates.

People applying for a rates rebate are likely to be on a low income, time-poor and may have issues affecting mobility and access.

Key insights

1. The system is too complex and multiple errors are occurring

People find the current paper application form confusing. This leads to forms often being completed incorrectly, or required fields left blank. Applicants often perceive the ‘rates’ and ‘income’ step as easy yet frequently get this information wrong. Councils suspect many ratepayers don’t apply because the process is so daunting.

2. Seniors are more digitally capable than many assume

Seniors use websites and apps to achieve a wide range of tasks. Three quarters of those interviewed were interacting online and are digitally savvy. Facebook, Skype and emails are commonly used to connect friends and family. A large proportion use these applications for video calling, sharing photos and sending messages.

3. Applicants are passing over control of their application to council and authorities

Councils told us that applicants often leave required fields or the entire application form empty, and trust council staff to enter or edit details correctly on their behalf. Although the applicants are signing the statutory declaration that the information provided is true, they are doing so because they have a high level of trust in council staff.

4. The current process is not accessible to disabled people

With approximately 11% of the target audience visually impaired, 49% with a physical disability, and 59% with a disability of some kind, there’s a high need for the process to be fully accessible.

Disability survey 2013 — Stats NZ

Everyone we interviewed used reading glasses and struggled to read the smaller text on the paper application form. The downloadable PDF hasn’t been marked up correctly, so it isn't accessible to people using screen reader technology.

5. Retirement village residents were well supported and had wrap-around services

Due to a recent change in legislation, this year was the first time people in retirement villages could apply for a rates rebate. The residents were well supported by local councils, who reached out to retirement villages to give support, information and additional services.

6. There is significant appetite for automation

Results from surveys and interviews indicate the majority of applicants would prefer to have the form pre-filled based on their previous application. There was a significant appetite for allowing government departments to share their data, and people assumed this was already happening.

7. Eligible applicants are not applying because their personal data is not private

People are embarrassed about stating their income and asking for help. This was a particular barrier to people in smaller communities where the applicants are likely to personally know council staff.

8. The statutory declaration is a significant barrier

To make the current statutory declaration, the applicant has to visit the council office, or meet with another authorised person to witness their application. This adds travel costs and stress for those with declining mobility or embarrassment about applying (see key insight 7).

9. There's a need for human contact and support

There's a need for applicants to be able to talk to someone for help, even if the system is automated. Most applicants are comfortable using the phone to make an enquiry and often talk to someone to better understand how to navigate the system.

10. Recently bereaved need additional help

Recently bereaved applicants struggle to cope with household administration if they have not done it before. Some applicants find the process overwhelming, in addition to the other tasks left to them to manage.

11. Leverage the best channels for awareness and support

A significant proportion of eligible people aren’t aware of the rates rebate scheme and that they may be eligible — this is a recognised barrier. This audience could be reached via channels they already use, such as local councils and libraries, Gold Card and Community Services Card services, supermarkets, health services, social media and online.

What’s next?

Full research and recommendations reports are in production and will be linked to from this post when they’re available. This research will be useful for other projects that work with people in a similar demographic.

DIA is exploring the next steps for rates rebate work.


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