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.


Mr Preview with Morecambe & Wise

There may be dark clouds hanging over the future of the Comprehensive Area Assessment and the national indicator set may be facing a spring-clean, but there appears to be a political consensus that the total place initiative is a good thing. 

True, total place hasn’t found favour with John Seddon who describes it as ‘total bollocks’ but from what Caroline Spelman has been saying, it seems increasingly likely that something like total place will continue beyond the general election.  So there’s a growing interest in what total place means for us all. 

On Monday afternoon I participated in a seminar organised by the New Local Government Network, part of a research project the NLGN is doing exploring what total place has achieved so far and its potential in the future. 

The official line is that total place is a new initiative that looks at how a ‘whole area’ approach to public services can lead to better services at less cost. It seeks to identify and avoid overlap and duplication between organisations – delivering a step change in both service improvement and efficiency at the local level, as well as across Whitehall. There are 13 pilot areas participating in the scheme. 

Local government practitioners could be forgiven for feeling a bit jaded and seeing total place as just the latest new solve-all initiative – there has been a constant stream of them from BVPIs to NIs, LPSAs and LAAs, CPA and CAA. 

(Looking back, it’s often been the same letters in the acronym but in a different  order. Perhaps we should have responded to Whitehall as Eric Morecambe did to Andre Previn when told he was playing all the wrong notes – I’m playing all the right notes, not necessarily in the right order.) 

I remember that on his first day as the Communities Secretary, David Miliband, travelled to Maidstone to meet the then leader and chief executive of Kent County Council.  Kent has maintained an enviable reputation for being at the forefront of most of the new initiatives in local government in recent years and is one of the total place pilot authorities. Its chief executive, Peter Gilroy, spoke at the NLGN seminar about Kent’s experiences to date. 

He spoke very enthusiastically about the potential the internet offers to the public sector and the ways in which it can fundamentally shift approaches and behaviours.  Total Place must understand, he said, that Web 2.0 is part of the transformational agenda.  One example he gave was the spiralling costs of needs assessment, where he said new technology would need to be used to cut costs.  Peter suggested that the UK public sector is significantly behind the pace when it comes to making the most of web-based technology and highlighted our low level of ambition on extending broadband capacity compared with other European countries. 

The key thing, he suggested, about total place is that it seeks to reconfigure services based on customer profiling rather organisational functions and forms. Perhaps recognising local government’s predilection for structural changes, Peter argued that, ‘restructuring is a killer of innovation.’  Innovation, he said, is about being obsessed with people’s experience of public services and Peter referenced the use that Kent has made of Terry Leahy’s work on customer profiling. 

Based on Kent’s experience of being a pilot, Peter highlighted the following issues: 

  • councils don’t need new powers, we can get on and do things and then wait to see if you get challenged;
  • There have to be benefits and incentives for people to share
  • Imagination is key

Molly Lewis, Capgemini’s Head of Local Government Consulting, then spoke about the work that Capgemini is doing on total place.  She outlined Capgemini’s four routes into total place: 

  • Customer perceptive – as Peter Gilroy had emphasised, transforming the customers’ experience for a particular market segment.  This work starts with the customer and supports joining up at the front line to deliver better outcomes for less cost;
  • Partnership Operating Model – creating the governance and operating model for the public sector partnership for the place;
  • Counting a different way – financial modelling to support evidence-based investment decisions;
  • Cost efficiency – taking money out of the system.

While statistics don’t always tell the whole story, sometimes they can be compelling.  Molly outlined work that Capgemini is doing with four pilot authorities on offending and explained that within the UK, 65% of offenders re-offend within two years and 65% of children with parents in prison go on to offend.  As with so many of the social problems that we seek to tackle, the cyclical nature, from generation to generation (highlighted in recent reports emphasising a lack of social mobility in the UK compared with other countries) points to the need to find new approaches and interventions. 

Amongst a number of factors that need to be in place for successful total place projects, Molly emphasised the need to avoid making assumptions about what customers value and to create community support by engaging directly with them.  She also said that being focused on something specific rather than trying to transform everything was key to success. 

During the subsequent discussion and workshop session, one of the issues that cropped up a number of times was the effectiveness of local strategic partnerships.  It was acknowledged that there are lots of issues that get in the way of partnership delivery.  Some colleagues from other authorities questioned the added value from partnerships and how they can become more business-like, less discursive. 

While I acknowledge Peter Gilroy’s point about the need for councils to get on with things rather than seek new powers, my personal view is that it is a challenge for ‘partial’ councillors to deliver ‘total’ place.  If local councillors were directly accountable for schools, policing and primary health care, then surely that would enormously simplify total place.  Rather than forever being locked into the competing agendas and different work practices of local councils and national Whitehall departments, re-invigorated unitary ‘total councils’ would be making the key decisions that shape the local community.  The old arguments about local administration instead of local governance could finally be laid to rest. 

The Office of Public Management published last year a report entitled, Lessons Learnt from Total Place so far.  The report is based upon interviews with the great and the good – the likes of Sir Michael Bichard, Lucy de Groot, Gerry Stocker and two London borough chief executives. 

One of the points that the report makes is that over time, processes tend to harden.  Good dialogue is replaced by process monitoring.  In a telling phrase the report suggests, ‘localities need continuing permission to develop local solutions.’ 

Most people’s experiences of local strategic partnerships would be that the introduction of the Local Area Agreement has tended to shift focus away from talking about local issues to monitoring delivery against national indicators.  But I don’t believe we generally feel we need permission to develop local solutions. 

The report comments that underlying mind-sets are based on programme delivery – monitoring progress using our beloved, red, amber and green traffic lights.  But how well does this work in tackling difficult social problems, particularly where there are unrealistic timescales?  

Linked to this, is it going to be helpful or counter-productive if total place becomes totally synonymous with saving money.  Experience to date seems to point to the need to build relationships, spend time really understanding the customer perspective and having the freedom to think laterally.  Faced with the need to find cashable savings fast, will those elements of total place which can most contribute to the kind of transformational changes described by Peter Gilroy be pushed aside and lose out to the counting?  Will the metrics vanquish the magic?  

‘Imagination is everything, it is the preview of life’s coming attractions,’ was the uplifting note upon which Peter Gilroy, quoting Einstein, concluded his presentation.  The challenge is, despite the cuts, to keep imagining a better future and to value creativity more than compliance and process.

I spent an interesting evening last night in the Grand Committee Room in Westminster Hall, listening to a debate on whether technology or policy would determine the outcome of this year’s general election.  The debate was organised by Delib and the panel of speakers including Rory Cellan-Jones of the BBC, Bruce Anderson (The Independent), Rishi Saha (Conservatives), Kerry McCarthy MP (Labour) and Julie Meyer.

For me it was Rory Cellan-Jones whose contribution to the debate was the most telling.  While pointing out that this year’s election would be the first in which twitter, facebook et al would be a feature, he said that the televised debates between the party leaders was the innovation which would have the greater impact.  This point chimed with a later one by Rishi Saha who pointed out that most of the money which the Obama campaign raised through on-line donations was used to fund TV adverts.  TV remains the crucial medium for getting your message across as a politician.  The political bloggers and tweeters are merely new players in a minority sport, so far at least, virtual settlers in the Westminster village, Rory Cellan-Jones suggested.

Bruce Anderson questioned the significance of election campaigns on the outcome.  True, he said, Barak Obama ran an effective campaign but would the Democrats have won anyway?  He suggested that 1992 aside, all of the UK election results since 1979 were not determined by the parties’ election campaigns.  The Tories big advantage in 2010, he argued, was that there was a pervasive public feeling that it is ‘time for a change’.

Rishi Saha emphasised how the barriers to entry in the political debate have been lowered by new technology.  We can all be Nick Robinsons now and for the political parties, social media enables them to mobilise their supporters much more cheaply.

In a contribution from the floor, Lord Harris, suggested that the key issue was how will politicians respond to social media, to the speed of response, which is something new.  Citizen journalists have changed the accountability framework – it’s a change in the way the game is played, he said, but not a change in the game.

It was an interesting discussion but less interesting to me than a debate about real policy issues.  It is easy to become wide-eyed about new technology and the way it is changing how we lead our lives.  But we shouldn’t forget it’s a tool with which to make something.  You have to know what it is you’re trying to build and why.

 I’m always interested to read what David Boyle has to say.  He is the co-author of a recent report published jointly by the New Economics Foundation and NESTA.  The report puts forward co-production as the best, most cost effective way of improving public services.

Boyle and his co author, Michael Harris, argue that by focusing entirely on people’s needs rather than what they can contribute, services have disempowered their users and done little to prevent needs arising in the first place.  Universal welfare systems based on taxation aren’t sustainable, they suggest, without better encouragement for self-help.

They define co-production as delivering public services in an equal and reciprocal relationship between professionals, people using services, their families and their neighbours. 

Public service professionals change from being fixers to facilitators.  It’s a shift of perspective, from seeing the people who use services as hidden resources rather than drains on the system.

The authors suggest that our specialised services dealing with crime, health and education rely on an ‘underpinning operating system’ consisting of family, neighbourhood, community and civil society.

So far, so good.  But here’s the crunch. ‘Co-production,’ the authors rightly point out, ‘needs to be backed by measures to make sure that everyone has the capacity to participate on equal terms’.

Demos’ report on the power gap in the UK shows that there are huge disparities in the power that people exercise over their lives which strongly correlate with education and occupational status.   Not so much co-producers, some people both direct and self-produce. But the people who often use public services the most are those in the most deprived parts of the country which in Demos’ power map have the lowest ‘power’ scores.  In addition, the change from fixing to facilitating, as is clear from the transforming social care agenda, can only be achieved with investment in staff training.

So, co-production may be the way forward for public services but we should be honest about the costs involved in doing it well and doing it equitably in the current financial climate.

First there was Demos’ Time to put trust back in the front line of public service.  Then came the Localis/KPMG report, The Bottom Line – a vision for local government, Reform’s The Front Line and last week we had the Government’s Putting the front line first.

The ‘front line’ is of course a term that comes from the battlefield and it has always struck me as curious that we should refer to staff who deal directly with the public as  front line.  Does it say something about how we view our customers?  Do we really see staff who have the most direct contact with the public as being at the forefront of the battleground doing combat with the enemy?

The trouble with these front line arguments is that in practice they don’t get you very far.  For sure the clinicians in a hospital do work that is vital but without their so called backroom colleagues, for example in procurement, ensuring that they have the equipment they need to do their jobs, they wouldn’t get very far.  The achievements and failures of large public service organisations are invariably the results of team effort.  Within a council there’s an inter-dependency between staff who deal directly with the public and those who facilitate them. Rather than being a hard split it’s a permeable relationship and rightly so. 

That inter-dependency makes the challenge of finding significant savings much more difficult.  It’s not necessarily simply a case of stripping away the middle managers and the paper-pushing bureaucrats or of service cuts.  There’s a need to really understand how different roles and functions fit together so that the best possible outcomes can be achieved with diminishing resources. 

Just as that won’t necessarily mean cutting discretionary services rather than reducing some statutory ones as CIPFA point out in After the downturn, neither should it be based upon a simplistic split between front line and support services.

The celebrity autobiography has become as familiar a part of Christmas as mince pies and tinsel so I guess it’s no surprise to see the musings of Ant and Dec, Jeremy Clarkson, Frankie Boyle, Peter Kay, Chris Evans, JLS, Jo Brand, and Cheryl Cole topping the hardback non-fiction best-sellers list. 

Celebrities have become the über-class.  Why do we find the trivial details of their lives so endlessly fascinating?  Why do we find it more interesting to watch celebrities doing things badly than non-celebrities doing things well? 

I think if Marx were alive today (Karl not Groucho) he would say that addiction to celebrity culture has supplanted religion and fufils the same social purpose.  Marx wrote that, ‘the abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusion.’

Television generates and feeds our boundless enthusiasm for information about celebrities. But might it be that there’s a correlation between the time spent waverageTV-500x443atching tv and unhappiness?  Rather than providing entertainment and escapism might it be that tv watching actually makes us feel more miserable?  Taking this list from The Economist I had a look at the New Economics Foundation Happiness Index of countries.  Of the countries in the ‘average daily television viewing’  list, the top placed nation, America (114) is the lowest placed in the NEF index, compared with Germany (51), Switzerland (52) and Sweden (53) where people watch significantly less television.  So this Christmas, go easy on the tv viewing; maybe we will all be sledging instead.

Back in early October I posted a link to a survey seeking views about whether services should have democratic oversight at all and if so, whether that oversight should come at council, regional or national level.

I am very grateful to so many people for taking the time to complete the survey and I have put together the slide pack below which summarises the results. 

town hall or whitehall

While (as might be expected given most of the respondents are from the world of local government) there is a general sense that there are a number of public services where accountability should switch from Whitehall to townhalls, it’s a more mixed picture.

Significant numbers of respondents feel that a number of more administrative functions such as electoral registration, registration, managing car parks, housing benefits and council tax collection, don’t require democratic oversight at any level.  And for some of these services where respondents felt some kind of role for politicians was appropriate, a large number favoured it being at a national level.  There was also strong support for regional oversight of some services such as transport, emergency planning and waste disposal.

And when it comes to social care the survey suggests that most people continue to see an important role for national politicians.

My tentative conclusions?  Perhaps the debate about devolving power from central to local government tends to get stuck because:

  • some things are better done at a regional level but in most parts of the country there are not regionally elected politicians
  • belief in the need for national oversight of personal social services is strong and probably reflects our cultural belief in uniform outcomes (this was something the Lyons report highlighted that compared with other European states we seem to have less tolerance of regional variations)
  • potentially councils could seek to move out of some of the more administrative functions they perform which might align with a stronger focus on councils as community leaders
  • it would be interesting to run a similiar survey of elected representatives to see how their views match up