Posts Tagged ‘Geoff Mulgan’

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’ve recently attended a couple of sessions exploring innovation organised by the Young Foundation as part of the London Collaborative.  At the first Geoff Mulgan spoke about how social innovations happen, what is it that makes them grow and become successful.  He mentioned the foundation’s social innovation exchange and that President Obama has set up an office of social innovation.

Geoff Mulgan highlighted four lessons from research into innovation:

1. innovation comes from connecting small groups, individuals and social entrepreneurs to big organisations, government etc.  In science and medicine those connections are well-established but in our world there are very few such intermediaries.

2. for innovation to prosper there needs to be effect supply and effective demand

3. many social innovations cross sectors (i.e the state, the market, the household) as they develop.  So single sector policy tools are not likely to be fully effective.  Support for innovation, Geoff Mulgan suggested, should be ‘sector-blind’.  This strikes me as a key point before we start to creating council-based innovation teams!

4. the field is rich in ideas and methods but largely unaware of them.  As the appetite for the IDeA communities of practice suggests, we want to learn from each other but there is still probably more to do, especially to get a better flow of ideas between Whitehall, townhall, the third sector and the private sector.

Steve Johnson of Capital Ambition also spoke at the first event and emphasised that there would need to be a willingness to accept failures.  He explained that increasingly Capital Ambition sees itself as being in the business of new ideas.  This strikes me as definitely the right focus.  Whereas previous Capital Ambition has been focused on driving improvement across London in terms of the current regulatory regime, going forward and in the context of the spending squeeze, its role in promoting and sharing new ideas will be very important.  In this new environment, Steve Johnson suggested, shared services between boroughs will be a necessity.

Rob Whiteman, Barking & Dagenham’s chief executive, spoke at the second session.  If you’ve been lucky enough to hear Rob speak before you will know what a great speaker he is.  He quickly cut to the chase, saying that the challenge of innovation is how do we as councils create the framework and organisational culture that enables innovation.  One practical thing they do at B&D is once a month there is a meeting-free, email-free day.  Some of my colleagues might suffer withdrawal symptoms just at the thought of that!

Some of the key points that Rob made included:

  1. We need to capture the energy and thinking of the frontline – customers and staff
  2. We are good in local government at producing processes – we need to avoid trying to create a process for innovation
  3. There’s not always a business case for innovation at inception – what does that mean in terms of project management, risk assessments etc?
  4. Innovative solutions are sometimes developed by getting the right people in a room and giving them the scope and space to problem-solve

Two interesting questions that Rob posed were:

  1. How do we spend more public spending on the public and not ourselves? (see Julian Dobson’s blog for more on this idea)
  2. How best do we dis-invest in performance management?

Philip Colligan (LB Camden) also spoke at the event and offered further helpful insights.  For Philip, three factors are paramount: 

  1. know your business – if you understand where the pounds go that gives you the basis for coming up with new ways of doing things
  2. co-production is often a feature of innovative solutions
  3. understanding impact – we need to take the trouble to properly evaluate the impact of the interventions we make.  Philip gave an example of how his authority is working with Imperial College students to do an in-depth evaluation of a behavioural change project involving council tenants’ energy consumption.

During the discussion, it was suggested that often our existing systems of stewardship in local government are about stopping things happening and that we need to turn that on its head so that our systems of stewardship facilitate innovation.  One person suggested that we need to do away with our long-winded person specs and simply say – ‘wanted – people with sunny dispositions!’

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