Archive for the ‘Behaviour Change’ Category

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.


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 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.

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At least both heads are looking in the same direction

 The idea that there can be perfect congruence from the vision and aspirations of an organisation all the way through its various strategies and action plans to an individual employee’s objectives has always struck me as overly simplistic. In practice, the so called ‘golden thread’ tends to be as elusive as the golden medina.

In a similar way, I’ve never really been convinced of the delivery chain view of the world which sees a minister in Whitehall pressing a button and seamlessly through the mechanisms of national public service agreement targets, local area agreements and the rest, the desired outcome materialises on the ground.   Disappointingly, this idea of a simple causal relationship between interventions and outcomes has become hard wired into our regulatory frameworks.

I’m more attracted to models which recognise the complexity of the world in which public service organisations operate. In a fascinating article in Prospect, Left Brain, Right Brain, Matthew Taylor argues that the actions of the state need to combine ‘the push of reform with the pull of social meanings and connections.’

 This seems to me a more realistic way of seeing how the actions of organisations like councils must interplay with the values and social norms of communities.  We are all familiar with the initiatives which seemed eminently sensible on paper and when discussed amongst colleagues which proved to have no resonance when it came to implementation.

Matthew Taylor goes on to suggest that, ‘as the public sector enters a period of austerity, we need to remodel services around the goal of building individual and collective capacity. This means drawing on the best circumstances for the emergence of connectivity, self-control and altruism.’

Brave would be the council that said its three priorities were promoting connectivity, self-control and altruism. But it seems to me that we need to recognise that increasingly our role is about building capacity, embracing ‘the pull’ rather than focusing so much on pushing through our own provider-driven agendas.

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Like the teenagers we seek to influence, councils are only too susceptible to peer pressure. No sooner have we started to feel confident enough to say that we will no longer be hostage to targets than we all seem to be jumping collectively on the bandwagon of save, save, save.

And it seems to be a truth universally acknowledged within local government that a community of any description is in want of engagement. Despite research suggesting that levels of public participation have remained at about the same level since 1918, we are committed to suddenly coaxing large numbers of people out of their apparent indifference.

But rather than focusing on finding new ways in which the community can engage us, I believe the real issue is to make councils and other public institutions more receptive. Satisfaction from participation comes from feeling that you have effected change on an issue about which you care. So perhaps what we need more than e-petitions, citizen juries and the like, is a shift in mindset in public institutions – a readiness to admit mistakes and to act on feedback; receptivity rather than engagement. ‘Receptiveness,’ George Eliot wrote, is a rare and massive power like fortitude.’ It’s a power we could usefully tap into.

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Double Choice

Tony BlairSince Tony Blair’s departure from government, we seem to have heard much more about ‘voice’ (people power) than about ‘choice’ (enabling people to exercise preferences) as a way of driving improvement in public services.  In his speech today at the Labour Party Conference Gordon Brown used the word ‘choice’ more than 20 times but only in the sense of the choices that the government has made in tackling the recession.

I’ve been thinking about what the relationship might be between councils seeking to steer people to make smarter choices in terms of lifestyle decisions and the Blairite choice agenda – offering  a wider range of services into and out of which people can opt. Might there be a Double Choice agenda as well as a Double Devolution agenda?

In Crimes & Misdemeanours, Woody Allen’s take on Dostoevsky, he suggests that, ‘we define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are, in fact, the sum total of our choices.’  By extension you can see a community as being defined by the sum total of the choices we make collectively. 

If we live in communities where people are hostile towards each other, maybe that comes back to individual choices we make to act selfishly.  Was the behaviour of some MPs with regard to their expenses really so out of kilter with the wider values of our society?  And how many of us would choose to say ‘no’ to the bonuses on offer in the city if we were awarded them?  It seems to me that sometimes there are some double-standards at play in our media-fuelled moral outrage at the behaviour of other people.

‘Choice’ doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Many of the decisions we make are influenced by other factors like affection, obligation and convention.  Moreover, some people given a situation are better equipped by ability and/or privilege to make advantageous choices.  That is why there remains a strong egalitarian challenge to choice – it exacerbates inequalities because those people who make the most of the choices available tend to be those who are best connected and able to work the system for their own ends.  Indeed, it can be argued that it’s the often patchily practised values of those same, sharp elbowed, people that lie at the heart of the behavioural change agenda. 

So extending choice is complex.  Choice may be a way of ensuring more effective and accountable services, and for sure supporting people to make more sustainable choices is in all of our long term interests.  But how best to make a reality of Double Choice so that the communities so defined are fairer, happier places where more people can fulfil their promise, remains a huge challenge.

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Tomorrow, my younger boy starts school.  My two older children have been in school a few years now and it’s been a generally positive experience for them.  They’ve made friends, learned a great deal and had plenty of fun.

And yet, I find myself fighting against this first day at school.  For one thing, there’s the dullness of the uniform – the grey trousers, grey jumper, white shirt, black shoes.  And by taking all these little individuals and making them look the same, it feels like we are complicit in enmeshing them in ‘the system’.

But as with most things, this isn’t a new feeling.  Giovanni Guareschi is best known for his Don Camillo stories but I also like very much a collection of short stories he wrote in the 1950s about his family life – My Home Sweet Home.  One of the stories, October Revolution, describes how he is entrusted with taking his little daughter to school on her first day.  He feels that he is abandoning her  – ‘You’re leaving my life, you’re entering the life of the state.  They’ll teach you public hypocrisy and even your thoughts will no longer be yours, and you’ll begin to see with the eyes of the Minister of Education.  Goodbye, goodbye’.

But at the point at which the children file into school, Giovanni and his daughter (the Pasionaria) jump into a taxi and race away through the streets of Milan to the blue waters of the port and the empty sun-drenched avenues.  Her first day at school is deferred.

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The tyranny of habit

The other day I was in a meeting where a number of us where talking about how best to initiate a conversation across the organisation about dealing with cuts.  We were talking about the need to deliver quantifiable efficiencies when a colleague pointed out that in our personal lives if we find ourselves with financial problems, we talk simply about saving money.

It seems to me that the more we can try and approach the issues we face in public services in ways that align with people’s real lives – both in language and substance – the better.  Too often, if we are honest, we like a bit of complexity.  Why review a service when you can business process re-engineer it? 

If undue complexity has become habitual, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.  Habit is a force not to under-estimated.  In Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein point out how important it is to get default options right because they tend to stick and once people are in the habit of them, they can be tricky to change.  If the default for refuse collection wasn’t once a week, perhaps we would all be in a different habit when it comes to generating rubbish?

The success of behavioural change initiatives like Smarter Travel Sutton is based on a recognition that how people travel each day is as much about habit as choice. When I buy a newspaper, do I consciously think about which paper to buy or do I always purchase the same one?  In reality I have a choice but habit may mean I don’t even think about the alternatives.

So as councils, perhaps we need to think more carefully about the habits we encourage directly or indirectly by the way in which we configure and provide local services.  Do some of our services encourage habitual dependency and erode self-esteem?  Perhaps we need a citizenship impact assessment?  New policies and service changes could be evaluated to see if they will encourage good or bad habits!

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