Although we can, with some justice, argue that local government has always been in the business of behaviour change, there’s little doubt that since the publication of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s Nudge, there’s a much greater interest these days in behavioural economics.
Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been reading two of the latest contributions to the ongoing debate about policy making and behaviour change – Geoff Mulgan’s independent report – Influencing public behaviour to improve health and well-being and the Cabinet Office/Institute of Government guide – Mindspace: influencing behaviour through public policy. Mindspace is an acronym, made up of the 9 key issues which the report authors believe policy makers need to address:
Messenger – we are heavily influenced by who communicates information
Incentives – our responses to incentives are shaped by predictable mental shortcuts, such as strongly avoiding losses
Norms – we are strongly influenced by what others do
Defaults – we ‘go with the flow’ of pre-set options
Salience – our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us
Priming – our acts are often influenced by sub-conscious cues
Affect – our emotional associations can powerfully shape our actions
Commitments – we seek to be consistent with our public promises, and reciprocate acts
Ego – we act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves
Geoff Mulgan’s report makes some very salient points. In particular he draws attention to the lack of a robust evidence base to underpin more effective behavioural interventions and the need to do more experiments and learn more quickly. It may be that the financial year ahead provides the opportunity to carry out such experiments so that as we move into what everyone anticipates will be the even tougher budgets of 2011/12 onwards, we can draw-upon this learning.
Geoff Mulgan also emphasizes the importance of contexts and ‘choice architecture’ in influencing how we behave. As Sunstein and Thaler have pointed out sometimes this is about how the states sets the default options. There is a stark diagram in the Mindspace report showing the difference between levels of organ donation in countries such as the UK where you have to opt-in and those where you have to opt-out. But beyond that formal architecture, networks and relationships and what the Mindspace report describes as ‘norms’ heavily shape behaviours. So when it comes to changing behaviours it is sometimes peer to peer networks which emphasise self-help (weight-watchers, alcoholics anonymous) that may make a difference. For more thoughts on social norms, see Matthew Taylor’s recent post.
As Matthew Taylor’s piece suggest, all of this links to the ‘M’ in mindspace – we are heavily influenced by who the messenger is. Clearly there will be situations where local government will be better placed than central government to take forward practical behaviour change initiatives on the ground and other areas such as social marketing which may prove more cost effective at a national level. But it also seems likely that often the messenger will be an intermediary – neither Whitehall nor town hall.
The Cabinet Office report suggests that a better understanding of behavioural theory can complement more established policy tools and in some cases may identify more innovative interventions. I think that’s right – it may not be the whole picture but there certainly seems to be a growing awareness that in the context of dimishing state resources, behaviour changes that reduce demands on the public purse (especially the health service) are something we can’t afford not to be pursuing.