Why debating the ethics of applying behavioural science is a red herring

Why the debate on Nudge is a red herring (tapped out on my phone during the #LSEnudge debate):

1. We’ve previously designed services thinking everyone is an in-control homo economicus. There’s loads of recent evidence on what we’re like. Why not use it?

2. “They can’t solve everything” is not a reason to not use ‘nudges’. If policy-makers commission ‘nudges’ & don’t deal with the food industry, that’s a problem with policy making, not with decision science.

3. If you want a policy/political narrative for it, work up the idea that we can do politics better if we better understand what we’re like as a species.

4. Behaviour is context-dependent, whether you/others are trying to influence it of not. So it shouldn’t be controversial to try to influence it.

5. There are ethical issues. Why not codify them? For example, behavioural practitioners and their commissioners should only use social norm messages that are true (so you don’t say 95% pay their tax on time if it’s really 80%).

How not understanding our biases leads to unintended consequences

Here’s a neat reminder from Peter Ubel’s blog that not understanding our biases leads to unintended consequences. He’s quoting from Alex Stone’s book, Fooling Houdini

When law enforcement agencies began putting pictures of missing children on the backs of milk cartons, for instance, the perceived rate of childhood abductions, as measured by national surveys, shot up drastically.

My reaction? “Ah, of course – it would, wouldn’t it?”. That’s how availability bias would work, because those cartons would be making child abduction more imaginable. Which flags up how many cultural practices there must be that, due to our biases, have results never imagined – both good and bad. The researcher in me wants to know about control or comparative data: to what extent did abduction fear increase in nations not putting missing children on people’s breakfast tables (for example, I don’t think this happened to any great extent in the UK, though perceived stranger danger has increased)? Were there states in the USA where this didn’t happen and, if so, how does the data differ?

But let’s take this at face value. The result of heightened fear is children being driven everywhere, not being allowed to play outside – which, in turn, impacts on public health / obesity, social capital, the environment, etc. In the UK, we now have the extraordinary situation where, in the space of a few days, England’s Chief Medical Officer has recommended gifting children vitamin D tablets (yes, the same vitamin D you get from being outdoors in the sun) and a group of venerable NGOs has felt the need to campaign for children to spend half an hour daily outdoors.

Now, let’s put this in perspective: no doubt there were positive outcomes from putting missing kids on milk cartons: children found who wouldn’t have been otherwise. So when I read Peter’s blog, I wondered if the people responsible for the milk carton approach would, on balance, believe it had been worth it. They might argue that it’s a non-issue, as no amount of fear is disproportionate in this instance. Either way (and this is my main point), I’m pretty sure that they would have had no expectation initially of heightening parents’ fear.

I’ve argued before that decision-making, policy-making and even politics can be better if we understand our human biases better. And I think this might be another example.

Why behavioural practitioners should give a sh*t

A small, but growing number of people have studied decision science and/or use its insights to earn a living. I’m lucky to be one of them.

I’m delighted to see communities of practice developing, and I’ve noticed the (apparently) high proportion of jobs using behavioural insights that are in finance or pricing. It has made me think about what we want ‘our’ industry to be like. My view? In a nutshell, we need to give a shit. Right now, that means linking what you do to the impact of behavioural outcomes on lowering resource use and increasing human capital and social capital. For simplicity’s sake, I’m calling this sustainable behaviour.

Here are the three reasons you should be using your influence to make behaviour more sustainable, if you work with behavioural insights:

  • First of all, you should, for the same reason that everyone with any influence should: that the data compels us, if we care about our species’s future. For one thing, every year since the 1980s, we have used more natural resources (on which all our wealth is based) than our planet can replenish; this year (2013), Earth Overshoot Day was on 20 August. Vitally, the additional GDP that has driven the resource use does not make us any happier. Climate change is part of this story: the recent IPCC report confirms what we already knew: that we need to leave in the ground over half of our confirmed reserves of fossil fuels. Second, inequality has grown rapidly in much of the West, particularly the Anglo-Saxon world, in recent decades, exacerbating crime, poor health, mistrust, mental illness and a host of other social ills.
  • Second, it’s time. We’re starting to see ourselves (sort of, kind of) as a fledgling industry. So it’s time to decide – and state – what our values are as an industry. Do we want to uncritically use our insights into human nature to boost companies’ profits by helping them sell people more stuff (or to sell it more effectively), when we know the impacts this economic approach is having? Look to the Design industry as an example: for years, the trend in the industry has been for new, young designers to want to work on service design for social outcomes and, if working on product design, to want this to be sustainable in terms of material use and reuse. They see their industry’s impact on the world, and want to influence it. It’s not hard to find examples.
  • Third, because it should make even more sense to us than to most other professions. Using behavioural psychology or behavioural economics gives a special insight into human decision making. We know that the basis on which it has been assumed that people (you might call us ‘consumers’, but we’re people, you know) make decisions is very flawed. Classic Enlightenment thinking is wrong; homo economicus doesn’t exist. Well, that is the same Enlightenment thinking that drove us to create an economy in which the pursuit of individual wealth is paramount, which encourages unfettered short-term thinking and which does not price externalities (such as the impact of economic activity on natural resources through pollution and soil erosion) because, well, we can’t see them.

That’s it. I’m not launching a campaign. I don’t have a statement of ethics to sign up to. And I don’t have an ask. To start with, I’d just like to see if anyone else agrees.

Consumers are people, too

This blog isn’t about sustainability. It’s about decision-making – and especially framing. But I need to quickly explain something first. My background in sustainability makes me alert to issues around consumption. Why? Because the resource use required for the levels of consumption we have is literally unsustainable if humans are to carry on thriving. And also because increased consumption goes hand-in-hand with a host of problems including inequality, crime and mental illness, as our lives become ever more about the status that consumption signifies.

So it’s no surprise that I have a problem with the frequency with which people are described as ‘consumers’, rather than as residents, citizens or, erm, “people”. It happens a lot, and it annoys me, because there is so much more to us than what we buy and use.

I think we can now see a demonstrable problem with the way the word (and concept) frames debate and decision making. This might interest you even if you don’t give a monkeys about resource use or wellbeing. Its’ from the recent Government strategy on ultra low emission vehicles (which doesn’t include bicycles, I should point out). This screengrab on developing the market is telling, I think.

1.54 of ULEVS

Note how people are referred to as consumers; in the Strategy, this happens nearly as often as people referred to as ‘drivers’. Is it possible that this is affecting the way policy is framed? When we have a decision-making class that has unquestioningly pursued GDP growth for decades, this framing makes a positive outcome more likely. “Consumers” consume; and when you’re chasing growth, this is good.

The commitment made in this strategy is considerable: £500m six years infrastructural investment, from 2015-2020, and an office has been established at DfT dealing solely with low-emission vehicles. Cyclists (and potential cyclists, which is the vast majority of people), however, get a much poorer deal from decision-makers, who never refer to them, in the act of travelling, as consumers (the Government’s recent policy document on cycling doesn’t use the word once). So it’s no surprise that, even though this was seen by Government as something to trumpet, cycling is receiving a (imho) laughably small investment of £148m (some of which is local funding) – with no commitment beyond two years, despite the existing legacy of next to no investment.

This matters, because active travel (walking and cycling) offers an major benefit to the economy and to public health. It would address many of the UK’s deep-seated problems. But it remains marginalised in policy terms, blighted by poor design and assumptions about the primacy of motorised vehicles. The result is that cycling is not easy or normal; despite the hype, there is no cycling boom.

I don’t suppose we’d ever be able to run a real-world experiment where policy discussions are restricted to referring to individuals as ‘people’, extended to ‘people who … [cycle/drive/ buy things, etc]. If we could, the outcomes would be interesting. In the meantime, if you want to influence decision-makers, keep talking about consumers.

Doing it better

Below is a post I wrote for the Behavioural Design Lab a short time ago. The aspect that has attracted the most interest is the use of proposed use of defaults to move from a project management-centric view (where residents make a fresh decision at each stage of the process that has been mapped out) to a citizen-centric approach (where, once someone has chosen to have a warm home, the default is that they are taking part.

Two quick points, drawing on conversations that I’ve had with people since writing this.

First, this is a really good litmus test for whether we are comfortable using behavioural insights. Personally, my view is that our choices always have a context, and that framing the choice in this way makes it clear and easier to make a decision that is salient to the person making it. But I know that some people not used to working with behavioural insights are a little uncomfortable with it; because it seems a little, well, sneaky. In a world where there are numerous websites on which I can click a ‘buy now’ button, before verifying a host of details, I’m comfortable with it, and that’s why I see it as a litmus test: it only seems sneaky if you compare it with a context in which people have to repeatedly decide.

Second, reflecting that most of the feedback I’ve had has been of the “what a great idea!” variety, there is so much that we can do better in public services, and it is within our grasp. I hope that this helps demonstrate the value of what I’ve been trying to do with With The Grain over the past couple of years. There are so many behavioural effects that we know can affect our decisions; and there is an ever-growing body of evidence of how and when they work. So let’s generate new approaches drawing on this knowledge. This idea was generated in a workshop of stakeholders brainstorming ideas based on different effects, of which defaults was one. Most of them hadn’t been exposed to much behavioural science before; if they can do it, so can you. This is one of our best chances of meeting the demand management challenge.

“Did I just use behavioural science? But I’m not a designer!”

So said a dozen or so stakeholders of a project aimed at retrofitting 160 draughty homes in Crawley, West Sussex. With good reason. They had co-produced a wide-ranging set of design and communication ideas for the project.

The project offers work such as external wall cladding, funded by the Energy Companies Obligation, through which the Government is obliging utilities to fund energy efficiency work on Britain’s coldest, draughtiest and most energy inefficient homes. The problem many have found is that, in the absence of existing demand (that is, people who are aware that they want their home retrofitted but haven’t been able to do it yet), building demand for something free is tricky. Price perception tells us that if something is free, it doesn’t have value. Homo economimus might see free cladding as a no-brainer; real people don’t.

So, when introducing the opportunity to people, we decided to frame the choice as being between a cold home and a warm home – not as the chance to choose a named process or product. And we avoided terms (such as ‘retrofitting’), known by professionals but which may provide a barrier if not familiar to residents. Crawley-ECO-leaflet-section

Adding the use of behavioural insights to the team’s existing expertise in community engagement had a major impact immediately, speeding up recruitment 4-fold, compared with similar projects being undertaken elsewhere in the South East.

Another innovation is that, when people say ‘yes’ to a warmer home, this becomes the default setting. So, instead of initially agreeing to an “assessment” which leads to another choice once the surveyor has visited, householders make a single choice: the surveyor will make a recommendation of the measures to adopt “ … unless you drop out”. From a project management viewpoint, we’re moving from a process whose success depends on people saying ‘yes’ at several different stages to a process designed to support and prove people’s positive choice to have a warmer home.

There are a dozen other ways in which we are using – or plan to use – behavioural insights. Rob Bennett, who leads the community engagement team, says, “It is really important that we find ways to encourage communities as a whole to get behind these initiatives, So whether it’s the initial decision to participate in a scheme, or ensuring that residents communicate what works best by sharing good practice and experiences – we expect behavioural evidence to play a critical part in successful ”delivery”.

We think we’ve learned what the With The Grain tool has also demonstrated in other settings: that behavioural insights are accessible and usable; that these insights help make approaches more people-centric and therefore more efficient; and that it’s possible to get away from the default setting of trying to persuade people.

So we now have a platform for using behavioural insights in the future. And we have a group of stakeholders who are comfortable with knowingly using behavioural insights to affect the context within which people make decisions.

In the future, this won’t be unusual. Right now, it feels revolutionary.

I Have a Dream: an update?

A quick thought, prompted by the coverage last week of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s celebrated ‘I have a dream’ speech. The most quoted sentence is:

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.

It’s so obviously right, that you can’t really imagine someone calling it into question. And yet … what is ‘the content of [someone’s] character’? We now know (and largely didn’t in MLK’s day) that we humans fall prey to, for example, fundamental attribution error very easily. It shapes how we feel about people and is so well understood you can even buy the t-shirt. In brief: because we don’t recognise the extent to which our own – and others’ – behaviour is context dependent, we tend to over-attribute personality traits to others based on what we notice them doing.

So my suggestion is that we want to be judged by what we do rather than by the ‘content of [our] character’ since, though our perception of events is biased, surely we can get a better handle on the former than the latter.

To illustrate what I mean – what’s more important: that someone identifies discrimination and acts to prevent it (which are behaviours), or that (as a character trait) they are opposed to discrimination? The first, surely.

Further ahead, what I hope will happen is that public understanding of our behavioural and perceptual biases, and of context dependency, increases to the extent that we can all be better at interpreting people. We’d have better relationships. And we’d do politics better.

I’m not going to rewrite King’s speech. It’s beautiful. But I do wonder if, given what we now know, we can have a dream about mass understanding of behavioural insights.

Public opinion: we’re wrong, but we’re not stupid.

So, Ipsos MORI have done some research for the Royal Statistical Society to put some figures on what we already know: that (in MORI’s words) “perceptions are not reality” (although, as Oliver Payne has pointed out “reality is perceived”).

In summary, we tend to over-estimate the incidence of bad stuff. Or of, err, difference. One example: on average, we (the British people) think that 15% of girls under 16 get pregnant each year. The true figure is 0.6%. Second example: on average, we think 30% of the population is black or Asian (compared with 11-13% in reality).

None of this is hard to understand, once you factor in insights from behavioural sciences. Availability bias looms large: it’s not news, or local gossip, when a girl reaches the age of 16 without being pregnant, but everyone will know about a teen pregnancy locally. And most people in the UK are white, with mostly white friends, family and acquaintances: why wouldn’t non-white people be more noticeable to them?

On top of this inherent bias, we have a hard-to-measure impact from public policy/discourse: politicians, media and opinion formers often talk up ‘problems’. It’s in their interests to talk up the profile of teenage pregnancy, perceived to cost the rest of us hard cash. And those who present diversity as a problem raise its profile, and use emotive language to embed it in our minds. “Swamping” is one of their favourites.

What can we learn from this? Bobby Duffy of Ipsos MORI says “We need to avoid dismissing public opinion: everyone has a vote, misperceptions have always been with us and they may reflect concerns – that is, people may over-estimate issues because they are worried about them, not the other way round.” Hard to argue with that. Peter Harrison of Brainjuicer stresses this:  “People aren’t scared of immigrants because they believe there’s lots, rather they believe there’s lots because they’re scared”, he tweeted.

I would add two things.

First, framing is really important. This was survey research, in which questions can be framed in different ways. The pregnancy question went thus: In your opinion, what proportion of girls under the age of 16 years in Britain get pregnant each year? I’d suggest that you’d get a more accurate answer (ie closer to reality) with a wording like : Out of every 1,000 girls under the age of 16 years in Britain, how many do you think get pregnant each year? The likes of Ipsos MORI could experiment with split samples (that’s where you run a survey where some questions have two versions, each asked of half the overall sample of respondents) to find wordings that give a more accurate average answer. This of course, would tell us nothing additional about public opinion or perception as fact – but it would tell us how to frame a question to get an answer more grounded in reality. And, if we’re interested in good policy-making, we’d also learn from it to help us frame policy discussions.

Second, these results don’t mean people are stupid or ill-informed. I know that you know this already, or you wouldn’t be reading my blog. But the implication of reporting these findings as indicating wrongness is that it’ll get read as implying lack of knowledge or ability on the part of the great British public. The temptation then is to say that the appropriate response is ‘education’, or what Bobby Duffy calls “myth-busting”. The thing is, this response is stuck in the past. Now that we know that people aren’t rational economic beings, who marshall information to optimise their decisions, let’s stop acting as though that’s the case. Let’s not think that throwing information at people is the right response to this report.

The myth-busting I suggest we need is a growing understanding of human nature. As I say all the time, this is what we’re like! The reasons we nearly all mis-estimate what Ipsos MORI have measured are innate, and result from the way our species has evolved and succeeded. I hope there will come a time when this becomes a mainstream view. At the moment, I know it’s a left-field perspective, but it’s based on plenty of evidence.

To finish, I should ask you to do something. How about: the next time a friend or colleague says something along the lines of “we need to educate people” or “we need to get more information to people”, ask them to work with the grain of human nature instead. Use information that’s already available, but frame it differently. And measure the impact.

And next time someone is talking up the sort of risks and differences covered in the RSS report, don’t call them out on the inaccuracy of their data (you’ll just look like a statto); call them out on the impact they’re having on public opinion.

Food labelling: another example of needing behaviour-smart policy-makers

The current news about a new food labelling system, ably covered by Ed Gardiner in his blog for the Behavioural Design Lab, reminds me of Daniel Kahneman’s telling point in Thinking Fast and Slow in reference to food labelling in the US. Given the chance, marketing people will prefer to label a food as “90% fat-free”, rather than “10% fat”, because we’ll be more likely to buy it. They’re framing the information in a positive way; for the same reason, we’re more likely to consent to a medical procedure with a 99% survival rate than one with a 1% death rate – though they are, of course, the same operation.

This gives me another chance to say something that, I hope, bears repeating: we need people in policy-making and service-design roles who have a good understanding of decision sciences. If not, we don’t do public services and relationships as well as we might; or, worse, in the public health context, it can mean that those with more interest in short-term sales than health outcomes are able to run rings round policy-makers.

Why being behaviour-smart trumps responding to demand

I’ve just come across a clear example of what I mean when I say that policy-makers and commissioners could be much wiser when it comes to using behavioural insights, and that being systematic about behaviour could lead to much better policy.  In a comment in response to a passing mention in a Bicycle Dutch blog on roundabout design, Patrick Lingwood (whom I believe is Walking & Cycling Policy Officer at Bedfordshire CC) gave this very detailed description (below) of how the authority arrived at a specific design.

It’s long, so I’m going to make my  response first; I don’t want to lose anyone here, so I’m not asking you to become experts in comparative cycle infrastructure and roundabout design. Before I do, can I just say that we should be grateful to Patrick for posting in such detail; it’s not often we get such a clear explanation of the rationale behind decisions.

Here’s my point: Bedfordshire’s design (effectively endorsed by the DfT) begins with an assumption about meeting demand for motorised traffic at the current level or higher, and of meeting current demand for cycling and walking, only more safely than at present. With this starting point, the resulting design is probably the best obtainable; personally, I’d love it, as I’m very comfortable taking prime position on my bike.

But I’m pretty sure that behaviour-smart policy-making would start with an analysis of current behaviours. A place-shaping local authority would identify the thousands of journeys of less than, say, 5km that pass through this roundabout daily and use a range of insights into the barriers to healthy, sustainable travel by the people who travel by car but are within walking or cycling distance of their destination. With a clear understanding of the behaviours it wants to encourage, the design process would then begin. And insights from behavioural sciences, along with experience elsewhere, would be used to identify how to make the behaviours being encouraged both easy and normal. This would be reflected in the final design, whereas the Bedford plan is unlikely to reframe walking and cycling as anything other than (as at present) low-status. A behaviour-smart approach might seem radical at the moment, but it’s the future, as policy-makers become more exposed to behavioural insights.

Anyway, I’ve had my say – here’s Patrick’s explanation:

“with regards to the Bedford turbo-roundabout, it is easy to misunderstand the impact of a design on the basis of a short article in LTT (Local Transport Today). The overall concept indeed was inspired by the examples in The Netherlands, but the concept has been adapted to the local environment.

First you need to understand the current arrangement in Bedford. It is an English-style roundabout in the middle of a very Victorian town. The roundabout itself is relatively small but has a relatively wide unmarked circulating carriageway where traffic either circulates as single lanes or doubles up depending on flow. Vehicles circulate too fast, entries are too close and it is difficult to predict vehicle paths, so that other vehicles, including cyclists, find it difficult to safely enter the roundabout. There are several circulating vehicle-colliding-with-entry-vehicle collisions as a result.

Most cyclists are also following a different path from most motorised vehicles. So there are conflicts as cyclists move across the different paths of vehicles. And of course there are the typical entry – circulating collisions where vehicles enter the roundabout without noticing the circulating cyclist.

On top of this, there are high pedestrian flows. There are 2500 pedestrian crossing movements of the arms without any assistance apart from the central islands, with several accidents resulting as crossing pedestrians are hit mostly by exiting vehicles.

So with 32 injury accidents, including 8 serious, over 10 years, at a cost to society of nearly £2 million, there was an urgent need to do something. The roundabout lies on an important route to the town centre and station for cyclists with over 500 cyclists a day, but it is also on a key interurban and intra-urban route with 25,000 motorised vehicles a day.

The council’s first choice was single lane compact (Dutch-style) roundabout. This was modelled but was found not to cope with the vehicular capacity, because whereas compact roundabouts can cope with those kinds of flows, the junction flows at this roundabout are not balanced. This is where the turbo-roundabout concept came to our rescue.

Ignoring the type of cycle provision for the moment, the essence of a turbo-roundabout is that it can cope with higher flows than a compact roundabout (up to 35,000 vehicles per day) because of 2 lane entries and 2 lane circulation. Secondly the raised circulating lane dividers prevent straight-lining through the roundabout so reduce vehicular speed entering, circulating and exiting the roundabout, thereby creating a safety benefit. Finally the spiral lane marking through the roundabout reduces the conflict points as vehicles enter, circulate and exit.

Our estimate, based on the radius of curvature of vehicular paths, is that in Bedford this will reduce motorised vehicle speeds from current 25mph to around 10-15mph, approximating much more to cycling speeds. The lower vehicle speeds allow us to put Zebras on every arm which will further change the way motorists use the roundabout, becoming more aware of vulnerable road users, and further reduce entry and exit speeds.

So with motorised vehicles and pedestrians now catered for, that leaves what is the best solution for cyclists. First it should be understood, notwithstanding the Dutch style preponderance of cycle tracks, if vehicle speeds are low enough, it is safer for a cyclist to go round a roundabout in the primary position. Annular cycle tracks create additional conflict points. In primary position on the road, a cyclist is most visible and has least conflict points, especially so in a single lane compact roundabout or turbo-roundabout.

Secondly, you cannot legally create a non-signalised annular cycle track and a pedestrian crossing in the UK context. This is the significance of the TRL work. It is the first stage in seeking a change in Government regulations to allow this. So either pedestrians get priority at a Zebra or cyclists have priority using Give Way markings (not a feasible option in this context).

Thirdly and most importantly, a cycle track is neither the safe nor correct solution for the Bedford roundabout. The four roads that lead to the roundabout have very high flows of pedestrians with adequate footway widths, but certainly not shared path widths. Most cyclists approaching this junction are on-road, using the cycle lanes on the most congested link. Cyclists going through the roundabout in primary position, i.e. taking up the whole lane, will have no more conflict points than in a Dutch-style compact roundabout, and around a third of the conflict points under the existing design. A detailed analysis of the accidents suggests a 75% reduction in serious accidents and 40% reduction in slight accidents for all modes, including cyclists.

So as long as cyclists are happy to take primary position in front of traffic, they will be safer and get through the roundabout faster than in an annular design. The conflict is between perceptual safety and real safety. The big question is whether cyclists will feel safe in primary position in front of slow moving traffic.

This is where personal feelings often cloud professional judgements. An analysis of Bedford data is that there are 2 types of cyclists – “Quick” cyclists happy to share with traffic and “Quiet” cyclists who want to be segregated from traffic as far as possible. The current division of cyclists in Bedford is around 60% Quick cyclists and 40% Quiet cyclists (on the basis of a survey of station cyclists and an analysis of road usage). Currently at this junction, 350 are on-road and 200 off-road (a lot of those are child cyclists).

So for Quiet cyclists we are creating a cycle track which leads to the Zebras. They will be able to go round the roundabout using the Zebras, 2 of which have been widened to maximum of 4m (on the main cycle crossing flows) to create as safe a crossing environment as possible.

In summary, the roundabout should definitely be safer for all users – pedestrians, cyclists and motorised users, than the current layout. Secondly, unlike now, cyclists will have a legal choice, depending on their nature, whether to go through the roundabout on-road or off-road. Hopefully this will create a virtuous circle of happier cyclists, eventually leading to higher cycle usage. We are thankful that the DfT Cyclist Safety Grant has been awarded to allow us to trial this innovative design.”

Behavioural insights, better metrics and @rorysutherland

Practitioners using insights from behavioural sciences to improve service design is one thing, but we’re also now seeing the need for policy makers to be systematic about understanding behaviour. This has a number of dimensions. For example:

  • it makes ethnographic observation more important than straightforward qualitative research. In short, you’re more likely to be able to influence behaviour if you gain insight into when and how it happens, than from focus group findings of people telling you what would make them change what they do.
  • it makes experimentation and prototyping vital, because we’re not going to rely (are we?) on interventions based on a belief that people are ‘rational, economic’ beings. There’s a clear link here with design thinking.
  • in designing interventions, it shifts the focus from ‘why’ to ‘what’: from “why do people do this and why might they do what we want to encourage?” to “what it is that people actually do? what triggers it and what are the barriers to people doing what we want to encourage them to do?” I’ve

I should write about each of these, really. But not today. Today, I’m reflecting briefly on something Rory Sutherland said at an event last week that I hadn’t previously given much thought to. He suggested that we need new metrics in public services and public policy. He’s right of course, though there’s a strong case that we’ve got used to having so many metrics that we don’t take enough notice of the ones we do have.

The specific example I remember is about mobile coverage. In the early days of mobile networks, covering 90% of the population when your competitors only reached 75% was a way of differentiating one service from another and creating competitive advantage, in turn driving other companies to increase their coverage. From a public policy point of view, the main metric being used was in citizens’ (customers’) interests. But once every operator had 98% coverage, they began competing on price, and innovation focused on how to design and present specific packages of data/calls, etc. This hasn’t driven up service quality; why would it?

Rory suggests that, since then, the main differentiator between services (in practical experience, though not reflected in marketing) has been the reliability – or uninterruptedness – of service outside of city and town centres, especially in transit. And although we know this as users, we don’t have access to any way of comparing services on this. Competition on this would have driven up the standard of service – but there’s no metric for this. My take on this is that, well, we COULD invent a metric for this, if we were so inclined. And maybe Oftel could have made each network publish its indicator on this and include it in all publicity.

Now, how relevant is this to my main theme – that people need to be systematic about understanding behaviour? I appreciate that some people would agree with Rory’s point, and say that it’s simply about being more ‘customer focused’. Maybe so. But I’m pretty sure that those who saw ‘percentage coverage’ as a key metric weren’t trying to be anything other than customer centric. And I’m also pretty sure that if you’re being smart about understanding behaviour, you’re more likely to generate the sort of useful, clever metric Rory suggests because you’d be focusing on what people actually do.