Making government easier by eliminating ‘sludge’

'Sludge' is the ‘excessive or unjustified frictions’ that make it harder for customers to achieve their goals, such as complicated forms and websites that are hard to navigate.

Pile of paperwork

The NSW Behavioural Insights Unit is helping make government easier by providing new tools to take the ‘sludge’ out of the customer experience.

We have developed a 'sludge audit' framework to help public servants to identify, quantify and prioritise sludge. This includes the time, costs and impact on customer experience.

What is sludge and how does it impact our customers?

You may not be familiar with the term sludge but you (and your customers) will have definitely experienced it. Examples of sludge include: 

  • Forms or documents that have you scratching your head and calling helplines for clarification
  • Websites that send you across multiple pages to find key information
  • Waiting for a long time on an application with no clarity on when you’ll hear back
  • Confusing rules or instructions that leave you unsure if you have done what you need to comply  

Behavioural scientists use the term sludge to describe these experiences, it’s the ‘excessive or unjustified frictions’ that make it harder for customers to achieve their goals.

Sometimes friction can be justified – you shouldn’t be able to delete all the files on your computer in one click. Having some extra steps can be helpful to guard against issues like user error, misuse or ineligibility. But if a simple government application takes someone four hours of searching and reading, two phone calls to the help line and three forms of identification, this is enough to prevent our customers from accessing the services, entitlements or support they need.

Sludge stands in the way of New South Wales (NSW) becoming the world’s most customer centric government.

How behavioural insights can you help you reduce sludge

Understanding of human behaviour is one of your best defences against sludge. We draw on evidence and methods from the behavioural sciences to help you identify and remove sludge.

At the NSW Behavioural Insights Unit, we have developed a framework to help you identify, quantify and prioritise sludge. We call this a ‘sludge audit’ – a concept first proposed by ‘nudge’ pioneer Professor Cass Sunstein. Our sludge audit has two key components:  

  1. A time and cost audit of the behavioural journey - this helps you determine how long a process takes and how much this time costs the customer and the government
  2. A customer experience audit – our ‘NSW sludge scales’ help you rate each step of the behavioural journey against evidence-based criteria that draw on behavioural science and the NSW Customer Commitments

The sludge audit lets you identify hidden sludge that your customers experience and the steps that are most costly and inconvenient for customers. The audit allows you to prioritise what frictions to fix first. Once you’ve implemented the changes, our audit and tools help you to measure the impact of your improvements.

Sludge busting in practise: building homes and greening cities

We’ve worked with teams across the NSW Government to trial our sludge audits and have had great results so far.

  • We partnered with Fair Trading to review the home building trade license application process. Using the results of the sludge audit, the team revamped their communications to customers using behavioural insights which led to a 32% reduction in follow-up enquiries from tradies needing to clarify their requirements. Annually, this means that approximately 3,000 more tradies are receiving their licences quicker.
  • We partnered with the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment to run a trial to increase take up of their "Free Trees" program. During the trial we worked together to improve the process and remove ‘sludge’. The changes implemented by DPIE reduced the process time for customers by 73% which represented a saving of $213 per order in equivalent customer time.

What’s next? Our first NSW Government sludge-a-thon!

This year we will be organising Australia’s (and perhaps the world’s) first sludge-a-thon! Inspired by hackathons and nudge-a-thons, our sludge-a-thon will invite NSW Government teams to rapidly design solutions to address sludge in their processes using behavioural insights. We will guide teams through the sludge audit methodology and provide a toolkit to reduce sludge.

Watch this space for more info on our upcoming sludge-a-thons. If you work in NSW Government and you’re interested in doing a sludge audit or want to learn more about applying behavioural insights to reduce sludge, please contact us.

Published: 24 March 2021

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