This is What We’re Like: how the most counter-intuitive thing you’ll hear all week will help you manage demand

(Originally published by the i-Network following my talk at their recent Shaping Demand conference)

You know how you sometimes lie awake at night planning to do something the next day – and then fail to do it? Well, you’re not the only one. We all do it.

Me, too. I’ll resolve not to have butter on my toast in the morning. Or walk to work. Or decide that, tomorrow night, I’ll wind down for sleep by doing the cryptic crossword instead of flicking through TV channels, because I know that screen time before bed makes sleep harder. And what’s more, I really, really, really mean it. Every time. But I almost never follow through on these decisions. Why not? It’s not because I change my mind and decide that I was wrong.

Here’s the counter-intuitive thing. The reason we don’t follow through on these good intentions of ours is that one of the main ways we understand human nature is wrong.

We’ve all grown up with a clear sense of self, believing that we’re in control of our actions. We take account of facts and opinions, make up our mind, then enact the decision we’ve made. And because I think I’m in control, I think everyone else is, too. So, when I want to influence someone’s behaviour, my instinct is to persuade them. If they’re doing something different, I assume that they’re doing it for a reason. So I try to change their mind.

Though we grow up with this understanding, there is a mountain of evidence that this isn’t what we humans are really like. Our evolution to be arguably* the most successful species on the planet has many quirks we’re beginning to understand better, but which are not yet in the mainstream and which overwhelmingly haven’t been reflected in how we have designed public services and shaped localities.

So what are we really like? Well, we have loads of mental shortcuts. Why? Because it gave our ancestors an evolutionary advantage to leave much of their brain’s cognitive capacity available to spot and instantly deal with predators. This is why you find it harder to apply your willpower if you’re already doing an ‘effortful’ mental task. It’s also why you’re really good at pattern recognition; your ancestors who realised that the leaves rustling nearby might be due to a predator were the ones who got to influence the human gene pool by running for cover and living long enough to pass on their genes.

Life expectancy has typically been under 20-30 years for most of human existence, so it’s no surprise that we also have mental shortcuts that help us grab the resources that will help us through the night, or the winter, and hold on to what we’ve got.

We also have plenty of short-cuts that help us be social, since human co-operation has also give us a real advantage. These biases have a much bigger influence on us all than we’d like to admit; in short, no-one likes to be the odd one out.

As I said a few times in my session at iNetwork’s recent Shaping Demand conference: this is what we’re like. And I think these insights are really helpful in taking new approaches to managing demand.

Freed from believing that people always have a reason for their actions, we can try to systematically examine what people do that creates demand for public services, and understand how it happens (not why).Freed from the need to change people’s minds when we want to influence their behaviour, we can concentrate instead on making self-sufficient behaviours easier and seem more normal.

And we can make this evidence-based understanding of human nature accessible, in order to involve staff, citizens and others in co-producing new designs and approaches.

The question for each of us is: how are we going to make sure this happens, rather than going the same way as my late-night commitment to walk to work tomorrow?

[*ants might beg to differ]

Can’t argue with conclusions of @greenallianceUK @mrskumquatkid report on #localgov & climate change

I recommend this report as an overview of the current state of play in local government on climate change strategy and action. Download it for free from the site linked below. It doesn’t make for happy reading, suggesting a retrenchment overall, with few authorities seeing the arguable additional ‘localist’ freedoms as an opportunity to move action on carbon and climate up the agenda.

I like that Green Alliance (author Faye Scott is @mrskumquatkid on Twitter) seed the report with reminders that local action needs to be about building resilience and making the transition to a low carbon economy and society. Sounds like one of my blogs. But I’d like to see more recognition from them that this will require a major focus on lifestyles and (in carbon terms) acting on consumption emissions. Local government is free to ignore these, and nearly all authorities do; the report contains just two explicit references to local authority interest in the consumption perspective.

So, on the gloomy side: there is a downward trend, and many authorities aren’t hitting the low bar that has been set. On the plus side, the green shoots of local interest in consumption metrics. I hope Green Alliance and others will encourage these.

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Is localism delivering for climate change? Emerging responses from local authorities, local enterprise partnerships and neighbourhood plans

This report explores the impacts of the coalition’s localism agenda on climate change action. It asks:

– Are local authorities continuing to work on climate change?
– How is action being encouraged?
– What potential do local enterprise partnerships (LEPs), local nature partnerships (LNPs) and neighbourhood plans have to strengthen local action on climate change?

Based on extensive interviews and two surveys, the report finds a three-way split between local authorities. A third are maintaining their action on climate change, a third are narrowing their work and a third are opting out of action altogether. Overall, the results suggest that climate change work has narrowed, is very weak or absent in 65 per cent of local authorities.

The full report can be downloaded above, or read the executive summary 


Behavioural effects can be used by #localgov. About time too.

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!

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ripple effect

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.


My take on what #localgov must do now: create conditions 4 #sustainability #innovation

This is my analysis from last week’s Local Government Chronicle. What’s it about? Here’s a clue: though I learned many years ago that sub-editors never accept the author’s suggestion for a title, I still try – and for this one my attempt was “It’s The Local Economy, Stupid”.

The challenge councils are working on now, dealing with funding cuts, are minor compared to the challenges our places face as a result of systemic global problems. This is why people like Neil McInroy focus on the concept of local ‘resilience’.

I accept that there aren’t yet many local politicians looking to reshape their local economies to meet these fundamental challenges. So the argument needs to be won.

You can help by asking your local leader, “What will the local economy be like if the financial markets meltdown after a default by, say, Greek and Portugal? And wouldn’t it be good to start right now to shape it so that it can deal with shocks like that?”

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Creating a sustainable future at the grass roots

22 September 2011 | By Warren Hatter

All local economies are facing instability in three systems on which we depend: in the financial markets, in energy supply and prices, and in ecosystem services. And we can already see local problems caused by instability in these systems: just look at the boarded windows on a typical high street, rapidly rising domestic energy prices, or the way that more homes are becoming uninsurable due to flood risk.

Worse, whatever the causes of the recent riots in urban England, they are a sure sign that there are many who feel detached from their local economy. Worse still, all these systems are now subject to major shocks, whether this is financial meltdown from a European country defaulting on its loans, massive jumps in food prices or cuts in oil supply.

There are concrete ways of getting to the understanding that your locality is vulnerable. Maybe through ecological footprinting of the area and starting to understand ‘one planet’ principles (like Sutton LBC); through commissioning a consumption-based carbon footprint, revealing that the true scale of the carbon challenge is more than twice what NI186 has had us believe (like West Sussex CC); or through a networked approach to place planning (like CLES’s work on local resilience).

When leaders realise that their local economy is not fit for purpose, what do we do? First, recognise where we need to go. We often hear leaders talking about the opportunities of a ‘low carbon economy’, but there is much more to this concept than benefitting from ‘green growth’ by providing goods and services related to energy provision and efficiency. The local economy that evolves will need to be:

resilient to shocks linked to food supply

resilient on energy

using much lower-carbon supply chains for everything

able to maintain its natural and social capital

If we don’t choose to be laissez faire, what can local government do to create the conditions for this new, sustainable economy to thrive?

Recognise that place is important

The “little platoons” approach to localism and big society will not suffice here. I believe that there is a vital role for leadership of place (place shaping, place stewardship, call it what you will) that is often absent from Big Society narratives and which is best carried out by a strategic body with a mandate: the local authority. As NLGN has suggested, some places are better equipped than others for the ‘Big Society’, so some intervention is needed. But this has to be about supporting communities, not top-down approaches which stifle innovation.

Grow our economic capacity

Relatively few economists work for local government; still fewer who are engaged with the ‘new economics’ and want to develop policies that let diverse, local enterprise flourish and resource loops become closed. In the future, for example, how can we encourage funding through a new local lending infrastructure? There is a range of models being used and proposed by the likes of NESTA.

Evolve our approaches to local leadership

More than ever, local authority leadership has to allow others in the community the space to lead. To do this, we need to excel at recognising civic entrepreneurship, and nurturing it. And enable the networks that are most likely to bring innovations to scale, so that every place might benefit from innovation elsewhere.

A sophisticated approach to behaviour change

More resilient, successful places can only be created with significant lifestyle changes, but we know that, in recent years, attempts to persuade people towards lower-impact lifestyles have had limited success; increasingly, we are learning to make sustainable living aspirational and in tune with people’s values.

Different metrics

We will have to measure our wealth in a much more rounded way than GDP and GVA do at present. One benefit of new ways of understanding success is that it will make sense for local assets to be used to their full potential.

Whatever we call it, the signs are that the new economy, the Civic Economy, the Big Society, is emerging, with massive energy, with diverse leadership and funding mechanisms and with a strong sense of place. Though these disrupt business as usual, they point to a high-wellbeing, resilient future with high social capital; this is unequivocally an opportunity agenda.

If we can work our way through the challenges, we will find that the local initiatives like these become mainstream. Delivering them is not our job in local government; creating the fertile ground for them to grow and thrive, is.

Warren Hatter is a local improvement advisor specialising in climate change, behaviour change and local leadership

Two recent reports make it clear there are already plenty of initiatives to inspire and councils are involved in many of them. Among the many initiatives highlighted in NESTA’s Compendium for the Civic Economy and NLGN’s Realising Community Wealth are:

  • Fintry community energy partnership, producing profits from sustainable energy for a whole community
  • Nottingham University Hospitals’ sustainable food procurement, promoting local entrepreneurs and growers while improving value for the NHS
  • Sutton Bookshare, a virtual library where members lend books to each other
  • Time Banks network in Islington, enabling people to share skills
  • Southwark Circle, a co-designed membership scheme for older residents
  • Surrey Museums’ provision by volunteers

A gentle reminder that our #localgov #carbon #metrics are seriously flawed

It’s good that LGC has used this story to highlight some of the real progress made by local authorities in reducing carbon. But I’m afraid that the stats showing falling emissions in every authority only tell part of the story: the territorial part.

Once we take into account the emissions we are all responsible for, the emissions needed to create the goods and services we use and buy, the story is very different. These embedded emissions have been increasing, but central and local government don’t report them. So the real story is that every area is responsible for way more carbon that we admit, and most of it is outsourced.

Some authorities, such as West Sussex County Council and the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, are starting to understand the consumption footprint of their area, and explore how it can influence policy. And they are part of a growing trend: only this week, an Inquiry was launched by the parliamentary Energy & Climate Change Committee to investigate the case for consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions reporting in the UK.

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Council carbon data published

19 September, 2011 | By Rachel Salmon

Carbon emissions fell in almost all local authority areas in recent years, according to government figures.

Figures released last week by the Department for Energy and Climate Change showed an overall fall of 14% across all local authority areas between 2005 and 2009.

The report found that domestic emissions had fallen in all local authority areas but there were rises in industrial, commercial and road emissions.


Progress: a Parliamentary Ctee Inquiry into UK consumption-based #emissions reporting #carbon #climatechange

I just want to celebrate that this is happening. If you’ve been here before, you’ll know that I bang on about consumption-based emissions a lot. Because it’s vital, and because so few other people do. But most of all because naive me still cannot believe how blinkered policy-makers at all tiers are in ignoring this perspective. Rant over. Thanks to Tim Yeo. Let’s hope it’s an important step on the road to having governance arrangements and policy-making that takes account of the carbon in supply chains.

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Consumption-Based Emissions Reporting

The Energy and Climate Change Committee, chaired by Tim Yeo MP, is today launching an inquiry to investigate the case for consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions reporting in the UK.

The UK’s reported greenhouse gas emissions have decreased since 1990, in line with our commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. However, it has been suggested that this is a result of the way that emissions are currently accounted for, which is on a production basis. Production-based emissions reporting only takes account of emissions produced physically within a particular territory. If a consumption-based accounting approach was to be used—that is, reporting the carbon embedded in all of the goods and services consumed within the UK—it is very likely that the emissions attributable to the UK would be shown to have been increasing.

The Committee will examine the case for consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions reporting in the UK. The Committee invites responses addressing some or all of the following questions:

  • How do assessments of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions differ when measured on a consumption rather than a production basis?
  • Is it possible to develop a robust methodology for measuring emissions on a consumption rather than production basis and what are the challenges that need to be overcome to deliver this?
  • What are the benefits and disadvantages associated with taking a consumption-based rather than production-based approach to greenhouse gas emissions accounting?
  • Is there any evidence of industry relocating from the UK to other countries as a result of UK climate change policy?
  • Would it be (a) desirable and (b) practicable for the UK to adopt emissions reduction targets on a consumption rather than production basis?
  • What are the potential implications at the international level of the UK adopting a consumption- rather than production-based approach to greenhouse gas emissions accounting?
  • Are there any other issues relating to consumption-based emissions reporting that you think the Committee should be aware of?


NGOs keeping track of Govt commitments on #carbon

I recommend ‘Climate Check’, a new report from Green Alliance, Christian Aid, Greenpeace, RSPB and WWF, aimed at holding the Coalition Government to account on its low carbon commitments. In summary, it’s a mixed verdict. I want to hightlight this for two reasons:

First, to raise the profile of this as an accountability mechanism. It is vital that this sort of analysis is happening, and high profile, not least in the absence of the Sustainable Development Commission.

Second, to raise the issue (as I often to) about consumption-based emissions policy. Now that we know that half of the emissions for which we are responsible are not covered by the territorial emissions commitments the government has made, there is also a role for these NGOs to be challenging the Government to do so. This report is not about lobbying for further commitment, but …

I would like to see future editions of ‘Climate Check’ track progress on the one commitment relating to consumption-based emissions that this Government has made: in its Carbon Plan, published in March 2011, it committed to “gather evidence on the contribution that the production of goods and services that are consumed in the UK is making to carbon emissions in other countries. The Government will develop plans to reduce the most significant emissions …. for example, management of emissions through supply chains.” This may be a modest commitment, but it is the only one linked to half our footprint, so arguably more important to advance than any one of the many government pledges relating to the territorial half of our carbon impact.

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The Coalition government was formed in May 2010 on the basis of a common policy platform thrashed out over several politically charged days. That platform, the Coalition Programme, contains some significant commitments to the UK’s low carbon transition which should increase the UK’s economic resilience by decreasing the nation’s dependency on fossil fuels.

This report is an assessment of the Coalition’s progress against the low carbon commitments set out in its programme for government. The analysis has been undertaken and produced by five of the UK’s leading environment and development organisations – Christian Aid, Greenpeace, Green Alliance, RSPB and WWF.

The report assesses both the quality of the policies that underpin the government’s low carbon commitments and the timeliness of their delivery. It makes recommendations about how performance on individual policies can be improved, as well as three high level recommendations which tackle the major barriers to better performance.


Upside To The Downturn – blog archive (from 2008)

I wonder whether the public sector stands to benefit in one respect at least from the economic downturn. It has arrived at a time when the public sector knows it needs to innovate like never before. Public policy agendas around efficiency have, arguably, seen all the low-hanging fruit picked. Other policy agendas (personalisation, climate change, knife crime) beg for approaches never contemplated before. Not only is the need for innovation beyond doubt, but also leading players make the right noises. Councils tell the Audit Commission that innovation is important to them and that they embrace risk. If we can overcome some of the cultural difficulties (eg – risk involves failing sometimes, and I don’t see many public sector bodies owning up to failure any time soon), there’s surely a chance here to recruit the emerging innovators and entrepreneurs to the public service cause. Not just because the conditions are becoming right in public services, but economic conditions are surely strengthening the public sector’s hand. Credit and venture capital, the essential tools of the innovator and entrepreneur in the private sector, are suddenly much harder to come by. It’s a good time to be developing the range of models for designing and delivering the public services of the future.