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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Policy transfer and the Australian experience of Behaviour Change

By Rhys Jones

Sitting in a hotel lobby in Sydney after an inordinately early breakfast – blame the jetlag – I’m starting to get to grips with the Australian experience of Behaviour Change interventions. The Australian Public Services Commission’s 2007 document, Changing Behaviour: A Public Policy Perspective, makes clear the potential role that Behaviour Change theories can play in helping to shape better and more cost-efficient public policy. What is significant about the foreword by Lynelle Briggs, the Public Services Commissioner, is how it explicitly states that Australia needs to learn from the experiences of other countries in relation to the Behaviour Change experiments that they have undertaken.

At face value, such a statement fits in neatly with a lot of what has been written in the social sciences about a process of policy transfer or an internationalisation of policy regimes, in which different policies emanate from particular innovative countries before being transmitted to other receptive countries around the world. It is this kind of vision of policy transfer that underpins the many negative statements made by commentators in Australia about the imposition of Behaviour Change ideas, deriving from the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, onto Australian public policy and political culture.

Policy transfer, however, is rarely as one-sided as this. As we have argued in an article that we recently published in the academic journal Geoforum, what we might be seeing in relation to the global spread of Behaviour Change is a process of policy translation, whereby Behaviour Change interventions are, importantly, adapted as they move from one country to the next. The kinds of Behaviour Change intervention seen in New South Wales in Australia will possess different inflections to the kinds of intervention witnessed in South Wales in the UK.

And yet, even the notion of policy transfer may not go far enough. I am reminded of Paul Gilroy’s work on The Black Atlantic: his discussion of how a Black culture has spread to all countries surrounding the Atlantic Ocean (for instance, in terms of a Black music that takes on many forms). What is significant about Gilroy’s work is his idea that we should not think about an authentic version of Black culture (for instance, an African ‘tribal’ music) that has been somehow diluted into more inauthentic forms (for instance, reggae, jazz or hip hop). Rather, we should view Black culture as something that takes on a multitude of hybrid forms.

Should we view the movement of Behaviour Change policies in the same way? Instead of focusing on the origins of Behaviour Change in particular offices, speeches or documents and their movement to other countries, should we not focus on the hybridity of Behaviour Change, its inherently disjointed, multi-site, almost rhizomatic global form? Perhaps, but this may also be the ravings of a brain addled by jetlag and strong coffee…

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