This is the full (unedited) version of the article Municipal Journal published last week. I think it’s clearer than the shortened version. It tries to explain in 1,400 words the principles we’re using to apply behaviour change techniques, and gives one example of this in practice.
I know it uses some technical (behavioural) terms, but I honestly think understanding of these will become mainstream, so we may need to get used to them!
Working with the grain
Friday, 14 October 2011
Warren Hatter and Kieran Stigant on how West Sussex County Council is learning to work ‘with the grain’ of human nature.
For the past year or so, policy makers and academics have found it hard to steer clear of the topic of behaviour change. Cue conference speeches, broadsheet articles and the important debate taking place on the role of the state (most recently highlighted by the House of Lords Science & Technology Sub-Committee report on behaviour change). This discussion needs to happen in the public domain, as it affects citizens’ expectations of government, but it does not need to get in the way of using behavioural insights. So we have decided to sidestep most of the debate and get on with developing the practice. Our rationale is simple: human behaviour is strongly influenced by context all the time, so we should be looking to influence that context to encourage the type of behaviours that improve wellbeing and reduce costs. Though a simple principle to work with, we acknowledge that it goes against the grain of 200 years of post-Enlightenment thinking. Mainstream economists and policy-makers have tended, until now, to assume that people behave rationally, but the evidence from a wide range of disciplines – not least behavioural and evolutionary psychology – now is clear that human behaviour is subjective (though often predictably so), context-dependent and intensely social.
Equally, reservations are sometimes expressed that local or central government using insights from behavioural sciences to shape communications or services is somehow sinister. We disagree; we think that local government’s responsibility is to get the best outcomes as effectively and efficiently as possible. HMRC increased tax revenues last year by changing the wording of letters sent to citizens in a way that employed behavioural insights (telling people, for example, the high percentage in their area who pay their taxes on time); we have yet to see any serious argument that this is underhand behaviour inappropriate for government. Likewise in local government: if we can reduce the number of unnecessary school admissions appeals by wording the communication with parents more effectively, then we should do so.
What has inspired us is less the theory and the policy debate, more the practical examples. In the past few years, there has been an explosion in the amount of evidence we can draw on. We have seen practical interventions using behavioural psychology and behavioural economics, carried out by organisations in all sectors, sometimes with academic engagement, and analytical approaches (the highest profile public sector example being the MINDSPACE report) that help us understand the range of behavioural effects that can be employed. We decided to draw on this evidence to see what opportunities it provides.
Having explained the imperative behind our work, we want to share the three principles that have inspired our approach. It is driven by three insights we gained from our research and initial work: the first, key, one is that we can improve outcomes and efficiency with low- and no- cost interventions. There are numerous case studies where this has been shown, for example well-evidenced examples of a smiley face helping to ‘lock in’ appropriate behaviour such as low energy usage or safe driving. This can be hard for people to accept, as we have rarely questioned narratives that assume we behave rationally.
The second principle is that Councils can do this. It’s not the exclusive domain of university academics and high-priced consultants and – to most – it’s not just interesting, it’s useful, too.
The third is that need greatly exceeds demand. In our view, just about every service has aspects that could benefit from using behavioural insights, but very few are actively ‘in the market’. Managers are not in the habit of using behavioural insights to generate ideas on how their approach could be configured differently, or communications reframed. We have started to change this.
And we also recognise the starting point that WSCC is like almost all other authorities. We have no staff with ‘behaviour change’ in their job description or job title, and hardly any staff who would describe ‘behaviour change’ as part of their role. And yet in many areas, West Sussex, like other Councils, is ‘doing’ behaviour change by encouraging residents in, for example, pro-environmental behaviours.
Our focus now is on using behavioural insights wherever human behaviour is a factor in our work. So, for WSCC, this is about building capacity; growing the amount of expertise in the authority on using behavioural insights.
The With The Grain Tool
The way we are building capacity is project by project using our new West Sussex With The Grain tool. To create WSWTG, we worked with experts in the two professions who make most use of behavioural insights to affect behaviour: designers and communications professionals, as well as getting input from academic experts and practitioners in local government.
WSWTG gives officers (and staff from partner organisations) access to:
•a way of pinning down the behavioural changes we are looking to encourage
•a presentation and poster explaining a wide range of behavioural effects, using the most memorable (as opposed to the most worthy) examples; and
•a method for systematically exploring the full range of behavioural effects to generate ideas from which the team can identify those worth pursuing
We have identified four clusters of behavioural effects that we introduce to officers. These are:
•approval effects, which make the ‘right’ choice (that is, the behaviour we are looking to encourage) seem normal;
•ease effects, which make it easy/ier to make the ‘right’ choice;
•reward effects, which increase the perception of reward for the ‘right’ choice; and
•obligation effects, which help people feel a sense of obligation to make the ‘right’ choice
So, for example, when we looked for ways to encourage all staff to clear their desks at the end of the day, promoting flexible working and enabling the authority to save money by reducing the desk:staff ratio, the following ideas were generated:
•Status quo bias (one of our ‘ease effects’) tells us that new behaviours are maintained when they fit into existing routines, so we are considering including a ‘clear your desk’ prompt or verification to be included in the logging out process at the end of the day. This could be like checking the box to confirm you understand the terms & conditions before you are able to make some purchases, such as train tickets.
•A range of ‘reward effects’ can be employed. Rather then communicating the benefits to the organisation (the likely default option), internal communications can focus on the ‘payoff’ for individuals, particularly in light of temporal discounting, which makes us favour immediate gains: in this case, being able to get up in the morning and decide where to work.
•‘Approval effects’ are very relevant, in particular social norms (none of us wants to be the ‘odd one out’) and authority effect (chief officers and senior managers will need to lead by example).
•Commitment and consistency may be the key ‘obligation effect’; we all want to behave consistently with a commitment we have made publicly. In this instance, asking teams to sign a declaration recognising the benefits of flexible working – not least the end of ‘presenteeism’ – and also the commitment involved (to clear one’s desk) may be a way of driving ‘bottom up’ change.
This is a very brief example of how behavioural insight can be useful, drawn from a current project. Our experience so far is that using the WSWTG enables staff to generate a better understanding of the behaviours which are a factor in their service and generate many more, better ideas than would have been the case without considering behavioural insights in a systematic way.
Having innovative ideas is not enough, of course; success will depend on being able to test and implement the best ones. We will be open about what we learn in West Sussex from now on, not least because there is a good chance that innovations driven by behavioural insights that work here will work elsewhere.
The debate will continue; in the meantime, local authorities have the chance to use behavioural insights to shape future services.
Warren Hatter is a Local Improvement Advisor working with WSCC on behaviour change. Kieran Stigant is Chief Executive of WSCC.