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Making behavioural science stick: six tips

Deborah Crossan

Last week, Stephen Beet (Head of Service and Better Lives Programme Lead at Bristol City Council), Henrietta Curzon and I shared our insights on how to apply behavioural science – and make the changes stick – within adult social care at a Local Government Association conference. The conference brought together representatives from over 50 local authorities from across the country to learn about what behavioural science is and how it is being deployed in everyday public sector challenges to reframe problems and solve persistent challenges.

Our key message was that while behavioural science isn’t rocket science, it does need to be applied deliberately and strategically if it is to have a long-term impact.

We offered six recommendations:

1. Invest time in visualising your desired future state

To deploy behavioural science well, it is vital that you clearly define what the end state looks like, and therefore which behaviours you are trying to influence. You should define what you trying to achieve that will be different to the current state. It can help to ask what the behaviours look like in action, and are they tangible enough that you would you be able to film them? Bristol wanted to maximise people’s independence for as a long as possible by focussing on their strengths. To achieve this, the conversations between social workers or social care practitioners and citizens would need to change to focus on strengths rather than only discuss support needs. Staff behaviour was therefore the key target.

2. Identify barriers

Once an agreed future state has been defined, it is helpful to map the barriers which may prevent this from being realised. This can be done through data analysis, observing behaviours, interviewing people and carrying out behavioural surveys. In the Bristol example, the key barriers were staff feeling that “they do this already”, and that there had been “similar changes in the past which didn’t work”. Giving staff the opportunity to air their concerns allowed their voices to be heard, and also helped the leadership team to understand the barriers to success and respond to them.

3. The messenger is key

Bristol were fortunate enough to be able to call upon two fantastic messengers. The Team Manager who led the change was dynamic, respected and an excellent listener. She made it very clear to her team what the negotiables and non-negotiables were. In pure behavioural science terms, she held a position of authority, but her many other qualities added to this to make her a perfect messenger.

The second key messenger was the Learning Development Lead, who himself was from one of the social work teams. In behavioural science terms he was ‘similar’ or ‘like them’ which meant that the team members responded well to his suggestions, challenges and leadership.

4. The power of co-production

A key piece of learning from Bristol is the power of co-production. It is crucial that staff are engaged with from the outset and are part of the journey to change the future state. In Bristol, staff were involved early to co-produce the practice methodology and toolkits. This resulted in the change being embedded from the start, and successes still being delivered two years on.

5. Define and measure success

Think early about what success will look like and what you need to put in place to measure it. Without thinking this through at the beginning, you may not be able to fully capture the fantastic outcomes you will achieve.

6. Continuous learning is vital

Following successful piloting at an innovation site, the new practice methodology and toolkit were rolled out across the service in Bristol through culture change workshops. Although these workshops were very powerful and were attended by all staff, they did not lead to the same level of impact and change that had been experienced in the innovation site. The learning from this was that further co-production with staff was required, and that more barriers needed to be identified, unpicked and addressed. This then has led to phase three of the project –  the development of the Better Lives Programme.

While delivering these recommendations may not sound difficult, they need to be implemented thoughtfully. Changing behaviours can only be done successfully if done consciously.

If you would like to talk to us about your council’s challenges and how behavioural science could help solve them, please contact me.

Written by

Deborah Crossan

Delivery Director, IMPOWER



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