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David Colbear

A plea to councils: put behaviour change at the heart of transformation

I joined the LGA’s ‘Behaviour Change’ conference this week (‘Nudges for Social Good – Using Behavioural Insights in Local Government’). I was there to share our impact in Ealing through the Better Lives programme, and in particular how applied behavioural science has led to a massive 39% reduction in referrals from the front door to adult social care teams. This has had a huge impact on staff and residents in Ealing.

I was obviously also keen to understand how behavioural science is being used elsewhere in local government.

First, the good news. There are smart, committed people working hard to use behavioural science as a tool for change across the sector. The LGA are also committed to support, co-ordinate and capture this work so that it can be shared – and this is reflected in the ‘top ten lessons’ compiled from their behavioural programme.

However, I came away frustrated by the lack of impact the projects were having in changing outcomes and, critically in a time of austerity, in helping councils better manage their budgets. At IMPOWER, we have proven that better outcomes cost less. Yet two workshops I attended showed interesting science but no tangible impact.

There are three possible reasons for this:

  • Behavioural science isn’t able to impact local government at the scale required. This can’t be true. I know from first-hand experience the impact that behavioural change has had in IMPOWER projects in Ealing, Bristol and many other places. It’s what IMPOWER does.
  • The projects weren’t central to council transformation plans. My impression was that they were standalone projects or add-ons, rather than being central to transformative change programmes. Therefore they were not getting the priority and focus they needed.
  • There is a lack of ambition in behavioural science. The projects I learned about weren’t tackling the really big issues that keep a chief executive or social care director up at night – balancing the budget and managing demand.

This is not a criticism of the attendees at the conference (who were sincere, had put a lot of time and effort into important work, cared about wanting to make a difference, and – crucially – were willing to share their learning openly and honestly with colleagues in the sector) but it is a plea to councils to put behaviour change at the heart of transformation and give it the time, resources, scrutiny and challenge it needs. The sector would benefit from being more ambitious about behavioural science and making sure it is actually applied, rather than seen as an interesting experiment.

As a Head of Service recently put it to me, “Unless there’s a sudden change in local government budgets, behaviour change is the only alternative”.

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