Media Releases

Behavioural scientists help Ontario save money through more online licence plate renewals: first-of-its kind Rotman collaboration

July 19, 2016

Toron­to, ON – As tedious as wait­ing in a gov­ern­ment ser­vices line-up can be, that’s what most peo­ple do, despite hav­ing the option of get­ting their busi­ness done online.

In Ontario, only about 10 per cent of vehi­cle own­ers do their annu­al licence plate stick­er renewals via the Inter­net. Main­tain­ing the over­head to serve every­one else in per­son costs Canada’s most pop­u­lous province near­ly $36 mil­lion a year.

But using study meth­ods drawn from behav­iour­al sci­ence, a team of researchers found that sim­ple, no-cost adjust­ments to mes­sag­ing on the enve­lope and form vehi­cle own­ers receive in the mail before their renew­al date result­ed in a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber switch­ing to com­plet­ing the process online. The most suc­cess­ful mod­i­fi­ca­tion led to a 42 per cent increase in online renewals as well as more own­ers get­ting them done on time.

“It was very excit­ing. We demon­strat­ed the gov­ern­ment that apply­ing insights from the behav­iour­al sci­ence even in the most mun­dane places can help increase the like­li­hood of peo­ple going online and there­by lead to big sav­ings that it can then use for more press­ing issues,” said Nina Mažar, the project’s lead researcher and an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toronto’s Rot­man School of Man­age­ment.

The researchers used “choice archi­tec­ture,” to design sev­er­al dif­fer­ent changes to the licence plate stick­er renew­al form and enve­lope sent out to more than 626,000 vehi­cle own­ers in late 2013 and ear­ly 2014. Each new ver­sion includ­ed changes to the enve­lope that high­light­ed the ease of online renew­al. Two of those con­di­tions also changed the text on the back of the renew­al form. One empha­sized the down­sides of not renew­ing online.  The oth­er detailed the ben­e­fits of renew­ing online.

The form that high­light­ed the upsides of online renew­al was most suc­cess­ful. Online renewals rose from 10.3 per cent to 14.7 per cent. The change also led to a five per­cent­age point increase in on-time renewals. It was made a per­ma­nent part of Ontario’s renew­al form in 2015.

Call­ing the low uptake in online ser­vices “a missed oppor­tu­ni­ty,” researchers not­ed their rel­a­tive­ly short, lim­it­ed exper­i­ment result­ed in a $28,000 gov­ern­ment sav­ings, which could lead to sav­ings of more than $600,000 a year.

Prof. Mažar calls the results “just the tip of the ice­berg,” in terms of poten­tial improve­ments to pub­lic process­es using behav­iour­al sci­ence insights.

The project was a first-of-its-kind col­lab­o­ra­tion between mem­bers of the Behav­iour­al Eco­nom­ics in Action at Rot­man cen­tre (BEAR), which Prof. Mažar co-directs, and the Ontario government’s Behav­iour­al Insights Unit (BIU).  BEAR designs solu­tions to social and eco­nom­ic prob­lems by using behav­iour­al sci­ence approach­es to achieve behav­iour­al change. Togeth­er with the Ontario BIU it has also done work on increas­ing the rates of organ donor reg­is­tra­tions and effi­cien­cy in tax col­lec­tion.

The paper was pub­lished in a recent issue of Behav­ioral Sci­ence & Pol­i­cy, the jour­nal of the Behav­ioral Sci­ence & Pol­i­cy Asso­ci­a­tion.

The com­plete study is avail­able online.

For the lat­est think­ing on busi­ness, man­age­ment and eco­nom­ics from the Rot­man School of Man­age­ment, vis­it

The Rot­man School of Man­age­ment is locat­ed in the heart of Canada’s com­mer­cial and cul­tur­al cap­i­tal and is part of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to, one of the world’s top 20 research uni­ver­si­ties. The Rot­man School fos­ters a new way to think that enables our grad­u­ates to tack­le today’s glob­al busi­ness and soci­etal chal­lenges.  For more infor­ma­tion, vis­it


For more infor­ma­tion:

Ken McGuf­fin
Man­ag­er, Media Rela­tions
Rot­man School of Man­age­ment
Uni­ver­si­ty of Toron­to
Tel: 416.946.3818

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