Using behavioural insights: commissioners need to get sharp

I spent an afternoon last week at Information Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, an event organised by the Design Councils’ Behavioural Design Lab. Maybe I’m lazy, but the main thing I took from it was a confirmation of something that has been becoming very in my work: that practitioners who apply insights from behavioural sciences in the policy sphere and in public services (and there aren’t many of us) need to challenge our clients to be very clear about the behavioural outcomes they want.

This may seem an obvious point to make, but I don’t think it is. Why? First, there is no established market for public service commissioning of behavioural insights, so commissioners have little experience to draw on. Second, so much policy is designed on the false assumption that people are rational, economic beings that there are likely to be some false assumptions built in to any default view of behavioural goals.

Let me illustrate this.

Felicity Algate from the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team showed a prototype smartphone app that would enable people to compare their energy bill with the putative bill from competing energy companies, and to switch supplier with one click. In terms of providing feedback, applying mere exposure effect, and reducing goal dilution (a real barrier to switching), it’s great. It’s a real “if only all public services could be like this” moment.

But it does raise plenty of policy issues. For one thing, what are the carbon implications (given that the UK has self-imposed carbon budgets to meet by law)? Well, first, let’s be clear that paying less for energy does not increase energy efficiency, which is improved by reducing the energy input required for a given output, not by making it cheaper! Plenty of switching campaigns make this mistake, which in policy or behavioural terms is a significant error (sorry Calderdale, I had to pick on someone). Second, switching suppliers to pay less could increase energy usage. Third, there is an (arguably underfunded) policy drive to help people reduce household energy bills be reducing usase, through the Green Deal, hence a real risk of lack of clarity on how to manage energy bills, with damaging behavioural outcomes.  (I should point out that, at the event, others raised risks around the potential behaviour of companies in a market operating in this way; I’m only thinking here about the behaviour policy-makers encourage in citizens). In summary, there’s a case to be made that this is great innovation using behavioural insights, to serve a policy goal that isn’t very smart behaviourally.

In contrast, Felicity also illustrated the use of text messages to encourage people to pay fines (already in the public domain). This is surely a good use of behavioural insights, bringing a public service into line with current knowledge, but also uncontestable in policy terms. Not only is justice being served, but ‘clients’ stand to save the £200 that would otherwise be added to their fine to pay bailiffs.

My point, in summary: taking behavioural sciences seriously means applying them to policy considerations, not merely applying them once the policy thinking is done. And for those of us working in the field, that means not always accepting a commissioner’s brief ‘as is’.

 

 

Being Clear About Green Deal’s Risks

Let’s be honest, it’s not often I am impressed by Ministers on carbon. So praise where it is due for Greg Barker’s speech on Green Deal to Ecobuild a couple of days ago.

Speech by Greg Barker at the Ecobuild Conference – Department of Energy and Climate Change.

His summary (below) is interesting, particularly the second and third bullets:

Today, I wanted to draw out three key points to unpack that simple description of the Green Deal:

  • Firstly, this is a brand new way of approaching energy efficiency.  Not a continuation of CERT, CESP, not a son of this or daughter of that;
  • Secondly, it will create a brand new market and opportunities for industry.  A market for the aspirational, not just for the worthy or energy sensible;
  • Thirdly, don’t underestimate the power of communities in their many shapes and forms.  These will be key to  delivering this agenda

Along with many others, I’m often heard emphasising that ‘doing the right thing’ on carbon and sustainability needs to be seen as aspirational, not hair-shirted or twee. Unfortunately, many ‘green’ messages do come across as the latter. So it’s good to recognise this.

My present concerns about Green Deal, though, relate to whether we will be able to deliver on – and build on – an aspirational approach.

Green Deal will fail if, in the first instance, not enough households take up the offer. This is recognised by all as a real risk, but little work has been done on how to manage this risk.

A second risk of failure is if Green Deal in practice does not build local skills and economies. This risk needs to be understood and addressed by local government; the centre will not take the lead. So when I hear tales of local authorities taking the lead in bringing together local consortia, with clarity about building local skills and using local SMEs to deliver, I’m pleased. But I don’t hear these stories often enough.

A third risk is beginning to be recognised by some in local government. This is the very real fear the the actuals savings on householders will not be realised as they ‘take comfort’. As it stands, there is no real incentive for private sector installers to tackle the behaviour change issue head on. My concern here is that it is now quite late in the day for local authorities to be solving this. And yet we’ve known since Kirklees first carried out mass retrofitting that half of the potential (carbon and financial) savings can be lost to people taking advantage of living in more energy efficient, less draughty homes by ‘walking around in t-shirts’.

The fourth risk I would identify is less recognised even by sustainability professionals and climate officers. This is the risk that we do not take the opportunity of engaging with people on energy use – with a clear carbon imperative – to also find ways of encouraging behaviour change in relation to our consumption-based carbon footprint. In reality, household emissions are a small proportion of our total footprint. This could be a great opportunity to help people take responsibility for their wider footprint. I suspect that few authorities are on the case with this, but I’d love to hear from any that are.