The Wellbeing of Future Generations Act and Behaviour Change
Behaviour Change of both the public and public services was a recurring theme in discussions at our event on The Future of Governance: Effective decision making for current and future generations. In this post, Chris Bolton looks at the challenges ahead and how we can get to grips with them.
“The real problem isn’t creating the vision for the future, it’s leaving where we are now…”
I’m not sure who said that, it might be a combination of several things I’ve read and heard over the last few months, in which case, I’m happy to claim it.
Key to the success (and the biggest problem) of the Wellbeing of Future Generations (WFG) Act are the very carefully thought Five Ways of Working (long term; integration; collaboration; involvement; and preventative). They all describe something that most people with a disposition towards a civilised society would find hard to disagree with. They are logical, sensible and most will agree with them. Possibly the best way to start a mass movement for change, find something that everyone can agree on.
The problematic part rests with human behaviour. As I see it there are broadly two things working against the Act; The System and People.
- The public services ‘system’ is a complex beast that will respond in unpredictable ways to the behaviours of the people operating within it.
- The changes in behaviour required by the Act are a seismic shift for many. The current behaviours have been developed over many years and are reinforced by organisational hierarchies and professional status.
It’s a huge challenge (and topic to discuss in a 1000 words) so I’ll try and illustrate my points under three headings:
- Correlation is not causation (it’s complicated and complex),
- It’s always been about behaviour, and
- We need to ‘Nudge not Yank’.
Correlation is not causation
If I could wish for one behaviour change around WFG Act it would be for decision makers to recognise that not all situations are straightforward with obvious answers. A few specific situations are, but many of the challenges we face around the WFG Act are complex (diabetes, multigenerational economic inactivity etc.).
Often the type of analysis used to supports decision making falls into the trap of mistaking correlation for causation when seeking ‘quick-wins’. For example, a successful economy will have a proportion of manufacturing businesses that typically operate out of industrial units. A fact.
It does not follow however that by creating lots of ‘industry ready’ buildings, manufacturing businesses will automatically appear in those buildings and create a successful economy. My colleague, Mark Jeffs, wrote an interesting article about ‘correlation not being causation’ which is sometimes called ‘cargo cult’.
The complex challenges of the WFG Act require decision making behaviours that; recognise complexity, accept uncertainty, the willingness to test different solutions, fail, learn the lessons from failure (out in the open), learn the lessons and move on. For decision makers who are ‘driven to deliver’ and ‘meet performance targets’ this can be a significant behavioural challenge.
It’s always been about behaviour
A phrase for you to ponder on, Hyperbolic Discounting (I can say what I like now, most people will have switched off).
Basically this is a human behaviour where people have a tendency to prefer more immediate payoffs rather than things that happen later on. This is to the extent that our future selves would probably have not made that decision, given the same information. This is also referred to as current moment bias or present bias.
This behaviour hasn’t just been invented to cause problems for the first of the WFG Act Five Ways of Working, Long Term Thinking. It’s been part of the human condition for thousands of years. If you are a prehistoric hunter gather with a lifespan of 30 years, long-term thinking probably isn’t high on your list of decision making behaviours / life skills.
There is frequently a tendency to ‘blame’ the political cycle of elections for short term thinking in public services. This might however be something deeper in human behaviour, a cognitive bias towards the short term. You can learn more about Hyperbolic Discounting in the 1997 paper by David Laibson in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.
We need to ‘Nudge not Yank’
In essence, lots of Public Services have ‘done’ behaviour change to service users over many years. Things like programmes to reduce smoking, wearing seatbelts in cars or even 5p plastic bag charges are ‘done’ to people.
Whilst many of these behaviour change initiates have had huge success, there are a different set of issues around may of the WFG Act challenges, for example the growth in Type 2 Diabetes. The approaches need to be more subtle and based more upon understanding were people are ‘disposed to change’. If people aren’t ‘disposed to change’, any initiative to change behaviour can run into full resistance or things like malicious compliance with unintended consequences. (I’ve written about this previously).
I would argue that to achieve the sustainable behaviour changes required by the WFG Act it is better to facilitate and nudge people in areas where they are ‘disposed to change’, rather than ‘shove’ or ‘yank’ them in areas where they aren’t.
That also represents a behaviour change for many people who will be involved in the delivery of the WFG Act.
Are we doomed?
Probably not, but there are some significant behaviour changes required to successfully deliver the WFG Act and we shouldn’t underestimate what is required.
Here are my Top 3 Tips for anyone involved in decision making and governance associated with the WFG Act:
- Accept that lots of situations will be complex and will require a ‘probe, test, fail, learn’ type approach before deciding on a solution.
- Surround yourself with people who have a different point of view and different experiences, and listen to them. It might help overcome Hyperbolic Discounting and a number of other cognitive biases (have a look at my post on The Ladder of Inference) for more on this.
- When trying to influence behaviour change look for areas where there is a ‘disposition to change’ and nudge there rather than trying to ‘shove’ or ‘yank’ people in the direction you think is best for them.