News and Comment

Behaviour change, local government and the Big Society

Monday 11 October 2010

At a recent OPM learning event about building the Big Society, a senior civil servant said that the role of government was to stand back and only step in to help when it was really necessary, specifically by stepping back from mandating and regulating but still providing support.

People often assume that this Big Society role for government is applicable to local government as well and that local government should just address the barriers to local communities pursuing Big Society-type initiatives rather than helping to identify or implement solutions.

How active do citizens want to be in the Big Society?

But this seems to make an assumption that the public are eager to take on a more active citizenship role and all that is preventing this is some form of local red tape.

The former Labour MP Tony Wright makes an interesting point about this in a recent paper for the IPPR think tank, Where next? The challenge for centre-left politics. Writing about how the Big Society chimes with Labour’s social democratic history he says:

‘ … people will not all become citizen-activists overnight, nor should they. At a practical level, people are busy parenting, working and caring, often struggling to keep afloat; they will only have time and energy for civic activity if good support systems are in place, and if the activity itself seems worthwhile.’

Big Society is competing for people’s time in a crowded market place. Stepping back and removing barriers will probably not be enough to nudge people from being consumers and passive recipients of public services to becoming active citizens.

A behavioural model for the Big Society

Recent thinking about how behavioural theory can be applied to public policy might provide a starting point for adding some detail to Tony Wright’s call.  An Institute for Government’s report from earlier this year has an interesting model for applying behavioural theory to the UK.  It overlays DEFRA’s 4Es policy framework with its own MINDSPACE behavioural theory tools.

Applying this to a Big Society context (and slightly tweaking the model by replacing DEFRA’s ‘Exemplify’ with MINDSPACE’s ‘Evaluate’) might help us to sketch out in more detail the future role for local government in building the Big Society:

  • Enable: assess the existing infrastructure and remove Big Society barriers. Also provide facilities, resources and expertise.
  • Encourage: put incentives in place to make being an active citizen an attractive proposition. Also provide information about how communities can play a more active Big Society role.
  • Engage: identify those areas where the state cannot withdraw completely but could work in a more slimmed-down co-production manner with local communities.
  • Evaluate: monitor and evaluate how well different Big Society initiatives are working. Also, spread the good practice examples widely both locally and nationally.

Being an active supporter but not overbearing local authority in this manner will help address one of the main challenges that behavioural theory repeatedly emphasises: how people behave is often influenced by who the messenger is and how the message is delivered. In this case the local government remains the messenger but the way it delivers messages changes. Rather than telling communities how and when they can play an active role and tightly controlling access to the public space it becomes more of an equal partner by lending its knowledge and expertise to local communities who help define public spaces.