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The Service Innovation Lab team (the Lab) collaborated between the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), Tauranga City Council and Auckland Council to complete user testing of the Rates Rebates Alpha. This prototype digital service makes it easier for low-income homeowners to understand their entitlement and apply for a Rates Rebate. Here we share the work undertaken so far on the Rates Rebate Alpha and what’s next.


A Rates Rebate is a subsidy (up to $630) for low-income homeowners on the cost of their residential rates. It is delivered by local councils and is administered by central Government via DIA.

The entitlement value is calculated from the cost of the rates, the applicant’s income, and the number of their dependants. The maximum amount is reviewed annually.

The Service Innovation Working Group (SIWG) within the Digital Government Partnership supported by the Government Chief Digital Officer (GCDO), approved an initiative to explore the design and delivery of a proactive service that aimed to deliver an automated service. Rates Rebates was identified as a suitable candidate for this approach based on research for the ‘becoming a senior’ life event.

This collaborative initiative was between DIA as the lead agency (business owner) and local authorities (councils), and was supported by the Lab in the delivery of the work through the Discovery and Alpha phases.

In the discovery phase we mapped out the end-to-end service and user journey, interviewed internal and external stakeholders, and explored potential methods of service delivery. For more information please refer to the Rates Rebates discovery report.

The alpha

The discovery revealed many opportunities at the system level to improve the experience for both people applying for their entitlement and people delivering the service. A minimum viable product (MVP) was designed and developed between March - May 2018 and this digital service for Rates Rebate applications was trialled in Tauranga from 21 May - 30 September 2018 with Tauranga City Council. This phase was called an ‘alpha’ and we introduced it in a series of blog posts in April and May. Tauranga City Council and Auckland Council assisted with further testing, and numerous councils have been closely watching the progress of this work.

The alpha work focused on testing the MVP with real people. It allowed local ratepayers to determine eligibility and apply through a digital process for a Rates Rebate. We tested if the alpha successfully:

  • Provides an online application that could increase the uptake of the Rates Rebate
  • Decreases the cost of processing applications for DIA and councils
  • Improves customer experience and satisfaction levels
  • Improves the ability to digitally deliver this and other services to councils.

The application process delivered by the alpha is entirely digital - removing the need for paper, as well as considerably reducing time for customers and processing time for councils and DIA. The estimated time for an applicant to complete the paper form is 25 minutes, with the digital application taking roughly 4 minutes. Here is some feedback from digital pilot users in Tauranga:

I’m partially blind, so if things are on a computer I can zoom in and read them

First applicant on Tauranga pilot

That was easy, wasn’t it!

Pilot applicant

I would do it online next time

Pilot applicant

I didn’t know government things could be like this

User testing

Through both the discovery and alpha we were able to get insights about the applicants plus the system and processes that support Rates Rebates.

The applicant insights related to:

  • Customer segmentation of those who apply
  • A lack of awareness by applicants of the entitlement
  • The complexity of completing the form and obtaining evidence
  • Accessibility of the application that still relies on people coming to Council office to verify their information
  • Cultural expectations of having to apply for an entitlement
  • Trust in digital and of government

The system and process insights related to:

  • Inefficient processes
  • Costs to councils
  • Peak times are hard to staff and manage
  • Council service centre support is critical to the success of applications
  • Inconsistent messaging from councils
  • Barriers caused by prescriptive legislation

We’ve written a report that includes all the work the collaborative Rates Rebats team (DIA, councils and the Lab) have been involved with so far. It contains background about the Rates Rebates scheme, insights found during both the discovery and alpha, a description of the recent alpha work and the discovery that underpinned the alpha. This report provides a complete picture of how we did the work, what we learned and our recommendations for making Rates Rebates an automated service that could form part of an integrated service for specific life events (e.g. Becoming a Senior, Needing Financial Assistance).

Video 1. Rates Rebates for Tauranga
Video transcript

Disclaimer states ‘This calculator uses public information on property rates. Any information you enter is not stored. If you choose to apply, the information from the calculator will be used to pre-fill part of your application for you.’

User inputs address details for Tauranga - 2/12 Brown Street which then pre-fills rates details for the 2017 to 2018 rating period of $2222.75 and states ‘This includes water rates, as provided by Tauranga City Council.‘

User inputs that they have 5 dependants.

The calculator then asks for the period 1 April 2016 to 31 March 2017 whether the user earned either:

  • Less than $33,331.33
  • Somewhere in the middle
  • More than $38,291.34

The user clicks on ‘Less than $33,331.33’ and the calculator indicates that they could be eligible for $620.00 with the disclaimer of ‘Assuming you meet the criteria’.

The user then clicks on ‘More than $38,291.34’ and the calculator advises ‘Based on what you’ve just told us, you are not eligible for a Rates Rebate this year.’

The user then clicks on ‘Somewhere in the middle’ and the calculator asks for the users income with the disclaimer ‘Approximate values are fine. You’ll need real values if you choose to apply.’ The user in puts 35000 and the calculator indicates that they could be eligible for $412.17 with the disclaimer of ‘Assuming you meet the criteria’.

The calculator then has a button come up that is labelled ‘Apply now’.

The user clicks on this and it scrolls through the steps required to apply for a Rates Rebates and asks if the user lived at the indicated address as at 1 July 2017 and then asks the users full name.

So what’s next? Transition to beta

Both the discovery and the alpha identified the desire from applicants, DIA and councils to progress the alpha service to full production. The Lab is now leading for DIA and All of Government to explore how to transition the alpha to a Beta — developing a service to meet the demands of a live environment, including understanding how to build and scale this while continuously improving it to meet user needs.

This transition work involves understanding viability of the service from a business owner perspective (i.e. development, implementation, and ongoing costs) and feasability from a technology perspective. The goal is to identify options that could be applied to a production version for DIA leadership consideration.

This work was recognised at the recent Open Source Awards and validates the approach we took for delivering better experiences and services to New Zealanders.

We’re always interested in your thoughts about the work, so please get in touch with us.

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