November 13, 2018

Grains of Salt (v38): A Personal Touch

Question: If you received a letter from your local government, and the envelope included a personal note, would it inspire you to open the letter?

And if, instead of the garden-variety form letter, you had a personal note from the mayor, would you maybe pay your past-due taxes?

Seems that's exactly what happened right here in Syracuse when Mayor Ben Walsh and others staffers sent handwritten notes to folks with outstanding taxes -- which brought in $1.47M over a four month period, according to this article.

The idea to send the notes came from the folks at the X Lab, a think tank at SU's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The guys from the X Lab worked with the city on how to reduce foreclosures and increase tax collections, and came up with the idea trying a personal note after doing some research into how people respond to different types of communication.

Here's how it worked: around 1900 people got the standard government issue form letter, but another 3800 or so got a handwritten letter, some of which also included a note on the envelope. The purpose of the letters was the same: notify the property owner of the delinquency and try to get them to pay up.  The personal letters went further, explaining that if they didn't pay up they'd lose their homes, but the city didn't want that to happen. The letters also explained some of the city services that the taxes support.

The results were pretty impressive: people who received the note on the envelope paid 88% more than the control group, the ones who just got the form letter. Even the folks who got the letter without the note on the envelope paid 50% more than the control group.

Walsh, a Maxwell grad himself, noted
This partnership with X Lab helps both the City and our residents. It's the kind of positive outcomes that occur when you aren't afraid to innovate and try something new. By using evidence and data to improve government services, processes and initiatives, we are helping to balance the budget while at the same time improving the health and well being of our citizens. 
Delinquent taxes are a long-standing problem in the city, with some $30M outstanding on over 2700 seizable properties,where the owners are more than two years behind - before this project started. And, there's another $9.6M outstanding on this year's taxes.

Also long-standing problems? Housing instability and poverty. Which is why it's great that we're seeing innovative approaches to these problems, and that we're seeing collaboration between local governments, SU and other educational institutions, and organizations like the Allyn Foundation, which provided grants for X Lab collaborations.

And honestly, this is exactly why Ben Walsh was elected mayor - to find innovative ways to improve life in the city, to find and work with any willing partners to try and solve these long-standing problems, and to get us back on track financially. 

Kudos to everyone involved.

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