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When points should make real prizes

Recent reports have questioned the benefits of rewards schemes designed to increase recycling, so Carolyn Cross looks at what makes an effective scheme

In 2009, when the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead introduced the UK’s first rewards pilot scheme, the announcement was met with a great deal of interest, and a certain level of skepticism.

Five years on, Windsor and Maidenhead has developed its pilot into a fully-fledged scheme. Almost 70 others have been funded either by Defra’s Reward and Recognition Scheme, or through the Department for Communities and Local Government’s £250m Weekly Collection Support Scheme. Some councils have reported some success, but the case for incentives is still hotly debated.

The London Borough of Bexley is one of the success stories, reporting a 14.6% decrease in residual tonnage during the five quarters since it launched London Green Points Bexley in 2011.

Across the borough, 20% of people living in flats have now activated accounts, waste left at the side of bins has dropped by 45% and the council has benefited from a quarterly saving in waste costs of £4,750 during the past 12 months.

According to Steve Didsbury, head of waste and street services for Bexley, traditional communications with flats residents resulted in limited success, so the rewards scheme offered a new way to promote recycling. With staff members already stretched, the borough chose to procure externally for the expertise necessary to operate it.

For local authorities considering a similar campaign, he says expectation management should be key: “This kind of scheme won’t have the same effect as switching to an alternate week collection, for example. But if we were able to roll out borough-wide and saw a 2% shift as a result, that equates to £200,000 in waste disposal savings.”

Bexley offers residents points that can be cashed in against products or donated to charity, in addition to discounts at local businesses on production of a Green Points card. Didsbury points out that monitoring individual flats could only be achieved – if at all – with costly onboard weighing systems, whereas measuring residual waste by neighbourhood slotted in easily with existing infrastructure.

The Bexley results are impressive. But, for many, the benefits of incentive schemes are still not conclusive. To determine achievement, robust data is essential.

Defra’s Evaluation of the Waste Reward and Recognition Scheme cites six pre-conditions necessary for success. These include effective and easily accessible service provision; clear communications across different channels; in-depth knowledge of the target audience, and feedback from service users. It also highlights the ability to demonstrate the impact and attribution of awards, and tailoring assessment and selection of the reward delivery mechanism.

Graham Simmonds, managing director of Local Green Points, which administers schemes including London Green Points Bexley, agrees. He stresses the need for a robust points platform that will not only prove reliable but also meet the high standards that residents have built up through familiarity with schemes such as Nectar and Clubcard.

He explains: “As far as I am aware, no local authority procurement process has included a key performance indicator (KPI) for technology platform reliability. Yet for service providers like us, that would probably be the number one KPI.

“Councils need to consider whether there is a robust methodology in place to capture all scenarios, such as people moving in and out of the area. Other indicators might include the number of households signed up or the number registered to receive online communications - online participants tend to be more engaged and active in schemes like these.

“The key is that you want people to collect their points. If they spend them, that’s good, but more important than spending is that they want to collect them.”

The premise is that, with the right infrastructure in place, regular and effective communications with valued rewards drive behaviour change. Simmonds adds: “People like to be told how they are doing and that they are achieving targets, so regular communications provide a powerful performance feedback loop.

“I also strongly believe that the rewards themselves are at the heart of any scheme, and they need to be motivational things that people actually want.

“Providing rewards requires specialist expertise. For example, we offer more than 1,000 choices - from iTunes to swims at council leisure centres - and building that range with the technology to support it has taken dedicated members of staff over three years to develop.

“Our points are real value, however we’re aware some council schemes provide notional value rewards in the form of discounts. This may be cheap for councils as the discounts are provided for free by the retailers, but I don’t believe residents will be particularly impressed.    

“We’ve been testing the demand for discounts since 1 January. For example, spend 500 points and get 30% off when you spend £5 online at Marks & Spencer. However, during this period, 53% of points spent have been on value rewards, 47% on donations to charities, and not one single person has opted to spend their points on notional value discounts. This leads us to conclude that people want something that has real value. For a local authority, providing a wide enough range of rewards and maintaining a professional, branded platform without external help would prove extremely challenging, if not impossible in my view.”

IESE director for waste, resources and low carbon, Dr David Greenfield, describes the effectiveness of rewards as closely linked to councils understanding which elements could help them change performance for their residents.

He says: “I think that Windsor and Maidenhead and Bexley have demonstrated that, since implementing the incentive schemes, behaviour of residents has actually changed. It may not be groundbreaking, like moving from 10 people recycling to 100,000 in a week, but it is a momentum changer.”

Guidance on starting a rewards scheme

Councils still unsure of how to proceed could access procurement guidance through a dynamic purchasing solution (DPS) set up by Windsor and Maidenhead and marketed jointly with Improvement and Efficiency Social Enterprise (iESE), a local government support programme.

IESE Director for waste, resources and low carbon, Dr David Greenfield, says: “One of the challenges for the public sector is the lack of resources to undertake lengthy, costly procurements. The advantage of the DPS is that there is a very simple methodology for appointing a contractor, which reduces time and cost for both council and contractor.”

Each council is able to determine its own specification from a menu that includes items such as service delivery, reward platforms or KPIs. Template documentation gives an indicative set of texts and conditions, although each authority is free to adapt parameters to local conditions.

The DPS is free of charge to councils to use if they write their own specifications and contracts, but Greenfield believes the most efficient method is for councils to engage with iESE and Windsor and Maidenhead to access previously developed documentation and processes. IESE then appoints a framework manager and will, where required, assist from tendering through to contract.

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