Digital psychology: why the paperless tax disc has failed to deliver benefits

I’m a huge fan of online services (or “digital”, to use the term beloved of marketing departments everywhere). I make a substantial part of my living from evangelising, designing and helping to deliver them. But sometimes it makes little economic sense to do digital for the sake of digital, as the government has found out today.

Here’s the then director of Government Digital Services (GDS), writing in December 2014:

… work goes hand-in-hand with deep business transformation. With the abolition of the paper tax disc, the DVLA have gone from being a department that processes millions of pieces of paper each year to becoming one of our digital flagships.

And here’s the apparent result of that transformation, as reported by the BBC today:

The number of vehicles without road tax – Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) – doubled to 560,000 this summer according to the Department for Transport’s survey, months after the paper tax disc was abolished in October 2014.


The Department for Transport admits these changes probably caused the increase in untaxed vehicles.


The loss in revenue for the government is “significant”, he [David Bizley of the RAC] said, having risen from £35m in 2013 to an estimated £80m now “and, it has to be pointed out, far exceeds the forecast £10m efficiency saving”.

It’s right that online services should be used to save money and improve convenience, but not at the cost of the taxpayer (or consumer). DVLA had been delivering both of these aspects successfully by allowing people to pay for the tax disc online a long time before this particular transformation.

Why did it go wrong? My analysis is that the impact of displaying a paper tax disc was hugely important psychologically – far more so than the digital transformation evangelists ever acknowledged. The removal of the behavioural “nudge” that the act of displaying the tax disc created meant that the DVLA were gambling on the benefits of removing paper outweighing the costs of removing the nudge.

Instead, it would appear that an annually recurring £35m cost to the taxpayer has resulted directly from this transformation (assuming that the efficiency saving referred to in the BBC article was an annual one resulting largely from eliminating printing and postal costs).

The lesson? Always ensure that your transformation initiatives have a robust business case behind them and that they consider the psychological impact of change as a variable that can materially alter your benefits forecast.

I’m not sure what the DVLA will be able to do to resolve this problem now, as I suspect that they can’t simply roll back this change without incurring even greater costs. To me, it underlines that imposing behavioural changes of this kind on your customers can never be viewed as a “Beta”.

I hope that this experience is giving HMRC food for thought as they strive to become a “digital tax titan” over the next few years. For them to be successful, the psychological aspects of digital service design must be front and centre in their thinking, followed closely by a robust business case analysis.

Otherwise, we may all be even poorer at the end of austerity than we thought we were going to be.


This morning I went back to the hospital to see my consultant. The days leading up to watch and wait appointments always prey on my mind, but this time has felt particularly stressful as I was also due to receive the results of my recent CT scan.

Conclusion? I’m lucky. I’m still in the small percentage of people diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma that appear to have an indolent variant of the cancer. The lymph nodes in my neck and under my chin have grown noticeably over the last year (the largest is now 3.75 x 3.5cm), but there’s nothing much to get excited about elsewhere in my body. My blood test results are still stable. I’m unreasonably concerned about starting to look rather odd because of the swellings, but I was no Daniel Craig (or Johnny Depp) to begin with anyway.

This is not a picture of me.


So it’s back to the day job and the MSc until February at least, unless things start to change drastically before then. I hope they don’t. Long may my luck hold out.

Dissertation proposal progress

I’ve just realised that it’s been rather a long time since I wrote about the progress of my dissertation proposal. August, to be precise. So with the deadline for submission rapidly approaching and making that gut-wrenching, whistling, wooshing noise that all deadlines seem to make, it means that it’s probably time to update you on my progress.

I’ve taken my own advice from August to heart and I’ve wisely decided not to boil the ocean. Having originally approached the dissertation with the vague idea of doing some research into the factors that affect the performance of salespeople (I now realise after much reading and thought that such a list is quite likely to be an infinite one), I think that I’ve finally ended up with a reasonably focused research question to investigate.

That’s good news, but perhaps what is less good news is my belief that the research question I’ve chosen lends itself to a qualitative, interpretative and post-modernist approach. While I’m excited about my research and the way in which I plan to do it, I’m still somewhat concerned that I didn’t force myself to come up with what would have been – for me – a much simpler quantitative, experimental and modernist approach. Oh well. Only time will tell if my social constructionist convictions have written a cheque that I won’t be able to cash.

I’ve a bit of fine tuning to complete on the proposal (and especially on my project plan) over the next couple of weeks. I’ll then be able to take a bit of a break from study over Christmas before the reality of the research process kicks in again early on in the New Year.

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 22nd November 2015.

Welcome back – the OU re-launches psychology masters degrees for 2016

Last year, the Open University announced that it intended to start offering masters qualifications in psychology again from 2016, after mysteriously withdrawing them a few years ago. More details of the qualifications being offered are now available on their website.

The MSc choices appear to be Psychology (F74) – wisely, they seem to have dropped the idea of calling it Contemporary Psychological Studies – or Forensic Psychological Studies (F73). There’s also a related MA in Crime and Justice (F75).

At present only the 30 credit foundation module, DD820, is described in any detail. It will start for the first time in October 2016, with registration opening next February. Assuming that the OU meet their published timetable, the final module required for the MSc Psychology qualification (the dissertation) will start for the first time in February 2018. I guess this means that the first new postgraduates will be receiving their awards later on that year or in early 2019. However, they do say that you are allowed to take up to 10 years to complete the qualification if you wish to.

Neither MSc appears to be accredited by the British Psychological Society and the fees for the first presentation of DD820 haven’t been published yet. Assuming F73 and F74 are classified as science qualifications, the guidance offered at the moment suggests that the total costs will be somewhere between £5,244 and £8,222 (2015 prices).

Let’s talk phobias

I’d be a useless Borg. And there’s a scene in Spectre that had me running for the exits.

I suspect that my phobia is reasonably common. I find anything that involves the piercing of my skin terrifying and would go to any lengths to avoid it happening – if it were possible. This phobia clearly rules me out of most (all?) forms of body modification – earrings and the like. I can hear several members of my family and friendship circles breathing a huge sigh of relief about that … it would be soooo uncool.

For many years I did overcome this phobia to donate blood. But only if I could have a local anaesthetic beforehand. Yes, I do realise that’s two piercings rather than one – who said anything about my phobia needing to be rational? Donating blood came to an end a few years ago after 34 donations, when I had an experience so horrendous at a session I attended near Ilkeston that it still occasionally bothers me now (I’m sweating just a little bit more heavily than usual as I type this).

After my diagnosis with mantle cell lymphoma last year, injections, blood tests and cannulae have all become a regular part of my life. I don’t like any of them. They feel worse than the disease. So far. I look towards the opposite corner of the room as my skin is pierced AND close my eyes too, just in case I’ve developed the superpower that enables me to see out of the back of my head. I haven’t.

The last cannula I had put in was a couple of days ago when I had a CT scan. It wasn’t in for long (maybe 30 minutes or so) but I can still feel it now. That and the metallic taste left in my mouth by the contrast dye they injected into me through it. Rationally, the effects simply can’t last for that long. But that knowledge doesn’t make the continuing experience of feeling the cannula and the dye any less real to me.

When I do get around to needing chemotherapy, the hospital has promised(*) to fit me with a Hickman Line. That’s a long, hollow tube made from rubber that will go into a vein under my neck, be capped off – and will stay in me for months. I really can’t write any more about this at the moment, as simply looking up the details is too terrifying to contemplate.

I will be Borg. And I really don’t want to be.


(*) Not the right word, I know.

Inspired by Post40Bloggers writing prompt 66 – Let’s talk phobias!

So farewell then, Teads top blogs

Teads (formerly Wikio/Ebuzzing) has been producing blog rankings for many years. Sadly, they’ve now decided to stop doing this as their business model has moved to focus purely on video advertising. The last blog rankings were compiled in September 2015, with this blog standing proudly at 98 in the ‘Other’ category (just 50 places behind a far more important and influential Tim) and at 710 in the overall UK table.

For posterity, here’s the progress of this blog over the years. Statistics aren’t everything, but sometimes they’re interesting to look at. Farewell Teads – it was fun while it lasted.

Teads blog rankings, September 2015

The three laws of study

I’m pleased to report that I’ve just submitted my training and development assignment. It’s a relief, as today was the last day that I had available for study before Thursday’s deadline. It’s also somewhat frustrating, as my plan called for it to have been completed three weeks ago, to leave me ample time to comfortably finish off my dissertation proposal which is due in early December.

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

I’ve particularly enjoyed hitting the ‘submit’ button on this assignment, as it’s the first I’ve completed since my unexpected year out due to ill-health. But it’s taken so long to get it finished!

Parkinson’s Law: Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

While I’ve enjoyed the process of researching the content that’s gone into it, my academic writing skills feel decidedly rusty. This assignment has taken me 11 complete revisions (plus drafts of the various parts of it) before I felt that I could do no more. When I was properly into the swing of the course, I reckoned on around 5 or so as being sufficient.

Newell & Rosenblom’s Power Law of Practice: The logarithm of the reaction time for a particular task decreases linearly with the logarithm of the number of practice trials taken.

But with these three laws of study lined up against me, I guess I should be grateful that I managed to get it done at all!

This article was originally written for the University of Leicester Student Blogs, 8th November 2015.

Better news for some blood cancer patients – Ibrutinib relisted

Bloodwise report on their blog (to which direct links generate a 403 error, so you’ll have to navigate their site to find it) that two of the drugs originally scheduled for delisting from the CDF have been relisted. One of them happens to be Ibrutinib for relapsed/refractory MCL, which is a relief. However, the future of the other delisted drugs remains uncertain, so action is still needed.

Thank you to @mgrimwood for pointing out the Bloodwise article to me.

Update: There’s now a statement from the Lymphoma Association available too.

Ibrutinib delisted – bad news for blood cancer patients

Ibrutinib, which in combination with rituximab, is proving to be highly effective in cases of relapsed or refractory MCL. However, the drug was delisted from the cancer drugs fund (CDF) today which means that new NHS patients who would benefit are now denied access to it. The blood cancers alliance has written this open letter to Jeremy Hunt and David Cameron expressing their concern about the failure of the CDF.

Blood Cancers Alliance Letter 3rd November 2015As I’m on watch and wait I’m not directly impacted by this failure today, but others will be. However, if my MCL fails to respond to chemotherapy when I eventually need it or relapses, I’ll very quickly become one of the group of patients that will now be denied access to this potentially life-saving drug on the NHS. That thought is making me feel rather uncomfortable, to say the least.

There is a glimmer of hope, as Ibrutinib is currently scheduled to be reviewed by NICE in February, with an estimated publication date (which I assume means when a final decision will be made about making it generally available for refractory and relapsed MCL patients on the NHS – I really wish that government-medical-speak was less impenetrable!) of December 2016.

More information on this decision and the reaction of the Lymphoma Association is available here.

As disappointing as this news is, this clip featuring Jeremey Hunt and a sousaphone player from The Last Leg is still has the power to make me unreasonably happy :)

1 2 3 75