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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Behaviour Change and the Power of Patronage

By Rhys Jones

The mechanics whereby notions of Behaviour Change assume discursive significance within any given jurisdiction are opaque at best. How does a set of ideas become accepted by politicians, civil servants, lobbyists and the general public as an explanation that ‘makes sense’ or is ‘useful’? Any number of ideas circulate within academic, political or public consciousness at a given time. So how do we account for the popularisation of some ideas? Why do other, equally ‘sensible’ ideas, fall by the wayside?

There are, of course, many potential explanations but one seems to revolve around the power of patronage. In our previous project, which studied the emergence of Behaviour Change in the UK, we heard many of our interview respondents refer to the fact that Gus O’Donnell, a former Permanent Secretary to the Cabinet (effectively the top civil servant in the UK), was very supportive of Behaviour Change and helped to promote its use within the previous Labour administration.

In a recent interview with members of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in New South Wales, too, it was noted that the Premier was keen on using behaviourial insights as a way of framing public policy within the state and that his ‘imprimatur’ had bestowed considerable status and influence to the Behavioural Insights Unit that had been set up there.

The situation has been slightly more ambivalent in the neighbouring state, Victoria. In an interview with Liam Smith, Director of Behaviour Works (which works out of Monash University, just outside Melbourne), it became clear that they had received some support from the Victorian government but that this had been slightly more muted than had been the case for the Behavioural Insights Team in New South Wales. For Liam, this meant that the process of promoting behavioural insights as a way of framing public policy has proceeded in a slightly more ‘top-down’ manner in New South Wales, when compared with the ‘bottom-up’ efforts going on in Victoria. This meant, in turn, that it had been slightly harder to promote Behaviour Change among government and other agencies in Victoria.

Of course, patronage can also backfire. Governments can lose elections, Ministers can be replaced and influential civil servants can move on or retire. In this respect, the source of patronage can easily disappear, leaving those working on the ground to promote Behaviour Change in a precarious position. This is why it is so crucial to promote ‘communities of interest’ or, in other words, large groups of people that have bought into the Behaviour Change agenda. It may be, equally, that the ‘bottom up’ route to promoting the use of behavioural insights within public policy – as has been practised in Victoria – has the potential to be more sustainable or resilient than the more ‘top-down’, patron-driven version of Behaviour Change that has emerged elsewhere.

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