Town Hall ponders ‘nudge’ behaviour change policies to achieve climate targets

Islington Town Hall. Photograph: Islington Council.

The Town Hall is pondering so-called ‘nudge’ policies to change residents’ behaviour in order to help achieve its target of becoming carbon-neutral by 2030.

With the impact of the climate emergency increasingly making itself felt across the planet, Islington Council’s environment & regeneration scrutiny committee is calling for the administration to adopt a behavioural assessment of residents, and the monetary or psychological incentives required to change them if necessary.

Draft recommendations drawn up by the council’s environment and regeneration scrutiny committee call on the administration to undertake a pilot project with an “appropriate organisation” to investigate how best to implement policies nudging residents towards behavioural change.

The committee studied evidence from academics on nudge theory, which recognises the impact of environment on human behaviour and lays out a necessity to work with human nature to effect change rather than simply ‘telling people what to do.’

The report reads: “The realisation of the need to influence behaviour change in all aspects of society has resulted in institutions and government applying behavioural insights into public policy around the world.

“The art of influencing behaviour is nothing new, and has been around for quite a while (for example coercion); however what is new in recent years has been identifying how best to do it.

“Recent research in behavioural science indicates that approaches based on information and education do not actually work that well, but people are influenced in remarkably similar ways by the framing of a decision, and by subtle contextual factors which are fast, automatic and largely unconscious.”

The report goes on to give as a national example the dramatic fall in levels of smoking in UK adults following the introduction of public smoking bans, alongside price rises and marketing campaigns influencing behaviour change in smokers.

Councillors sitting on the committee took evidence from behavioural scientist Professor Ivo Vlaev of Warwick University, who told the Town Hall that behavioural insights show that receipt of information in humans triggers a habit leading to a decision, while new information produces reflective or conscious decisions.

On a more practical level, Amy Jones, who set up a behavioural science unit for Croydon Council (understood to be the first in local government in the country) gave the committee the example of making “subtle changes” to invitation letters for appointments for looked-after children.

The report reads: “The unit [addressed] the failure of the council to comply with the statutory deadline of 21 days with Children Looked After. In this instance it was noted that there was a high number of ‘do not attend’ appointments, where young people failed to attend their appointments which was costing the NHS £160 a day.

“The unit decided to make subtle changes to the invitation letter, inserting a map within the letter, and the time of appointment, and a tear off slip reminder. This subtle change resulted in a 50 per cent drop in ‘do not attend’ appointments.

“The committee are of the view that all relevant Environment and Regeneration services, which require citizens in the Borough to change their behaviour, such as recycling, should be delivered using evidence-based behaviour science.”

Councillors in the draft recommendations noted that successful results in behavioural change would be in the order of a 5-10 per cent alteration, rather than more dramatic results, while envisaging a toolkit being put together for other parts of the council which could see multiple behavioural change units being set up in the future.