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I wrote in an earlier post about the growth of interest in the UK government around encouraging behaviour change. As one of the aims of this project is to get the design community involved in this challenge, it seems worth mentioning (for designers' benefit) a couple of specific areas in which behaviour change is currently sought after by government. I'll follow this post soon with another (for policy makers' benefit) looking at a couple of ways (apart from the "persuasive technology" examples) in which designers have done a great job of designing for behaviour change.

It's fair to say that interest in behaviour change is booming at the national level of UK government. For example, a recent review of behaviour change models (and guidelines for applying them in policy) was carried out by Government Social Research (GSR) (an office that belongs to the Treasury, but works across twenty government departments), which describes the rationale behind the interest in behaviour change:

Policy making for behaviour change recognises that individuals need to change their own behaviour in order for government’s wider goals for society to be achieved. The need for policy, which explicitly aims to bring about behavioural change among individuals is based on the realisation that for some complex problems, government cannot bring about change on its own. Lasting change requires a total partnership approach led by government, and including a wide range of stakeholders and organisations, as well as individuals themselves. [1]

This shift from top-down government to co-productive governance is marked by a retreat from policy makers' reliance on traditional policy instruments (fiscal incentives and taxes), now recognised to be effective only on perfectly rational people (a rare breed), towards the more complex models of behaviour described in such reviews. These more sophisticated models draw people's attitudes, agency, social norms, habits and emotions into the equation.

GSR's report is the first cross-departmental initiative on behaviour change, but comes on top of other work that has taken place in various departments.

One of the departments most prominent in the field is Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) who have recently established an Environmental Behaviours Unit, who's job it is to:

...assemble, analyse and translate evidence related to pro-environmental behaviours and to work within Defra and with external stakeholders to improve the design and implementation of policy interventions aimed at helping individuals and communities live more environmentally sustainable lifestyles. [2]

The Department for Transport (in work also related to climate change) has shown interest in behaviour change and was ahead of the curve, publishing research in 2006 on why people's knowledge and attitudes about climate change fail to turn in to actual changes in travel behaviour. As an aside, the DfT regret the fact that there is no 'grand unified theory' of behaviour change - a problem that the RSA is currently working on.

As might be expected, the Department of Health are interested in behaviour change, looking at how social marketing techniques might be applied to encourage behaviour change and setting up a specific Social Marketing and Health-related Behaviour Team. Communities and Local Government are also in the process of conducting research to find out (among other things) which behaviours are desirable and what their drivers are, and the department for Children, Schools and Families have a large body of practical research on behaviour in schools.

The Cabinet Office are also in the act, with their work in 2008 on achieving culture change, which concentrates on the idea of cultural capital - people's attitudes, values, aspirations and sense of self-worth. Even the Foreign Office have a chapter in a report on how communications can change behaviour.

Some interesting work is conducted by the Department for International Development (DFID), who as well as funding South Africa's most popular soap opera - which always make a point of using condoms in their storylines - also distribute female condoms via hair salons in Zimbabwe - "Get braids, not AIDS" - as the headline says.

DFID's example is a bit of fresh air to be honest - the behaviour change conversation in government can seem (to an outsider) repetitive and rather lacking in creative ideas. For example, Defra's consultation with energy suppliers over the supplier obligation policy (a commitment that will run from 2011 and require energy suppliers to meet CO2 reduction targets by providing their domestic customers with energy efficiency measures) showed energy suppliers feared the extent to which Defra was relying on them to produce behaviour change in their customers. Defra had hoped to save a quarter of all savings after 2011 by behaviour change, and to create this huge behaviour change and associated CO2 saving, suggested roughly these measures:

  • Activities of the Energy Saving Trust

  • Energy Performance Certificates

  • Climate change communications

  • Real-time displays and smart meters

  • Personal carbon allowances

Do you think designers could help create better behavioural policies?

[1] Darnton, A. (2008) Briefing Note for Policy Makers, GSR Behaviour Change Knowledge Review. Available from: [2] Defra, (2008) A Framework for pro-Environmental Behaviours. Available from: 


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