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Costless changes that can lead to big differences

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How should an authority go about ensuring that children with special educational needs get to school safely and regularly? What steps should councils take to encourage citizens to play their part in the upkeep of their neighbourhood such as reducing litter and increasing recycling? How does one persuade citizens to use services responsibly, avoiding unnecessary demand?  

Steve Martin

Steve Martin, author of The Big Small

When seeking answers to such challenges it is likely councils will turn to two strategies in particular.

One is to design a programme that educates people about why these issues are important. The other is to consider what measures will incentivise people to behave accordingly. Tools designed to inform and/or incentivise have been tremendously helpful for the public good (seat belts are a good example) but it is also important to recognise that often these tools, used either alone or in combination, won’t suffice. Rather like two-legged stools, programmes based solely on the two levers of information and incentives can wobble.

These two traditional tools can be augmented with a third: the deployment of small, behavioural changes that link to deep-seated motivations in those individuals whose actions we wish to influence.

When council staff contacting parents to discuss transport options changed their typical opening question: “Congratulations, your child has a place at [name] school. How would you like us to transport them?” to “How are you planning to get your child to school?” the council concerned measured a 29% increase in parents taking their own children to school and significant savings as a result.

In an attempt to encourage appropriate use of a public service, one of us showed that if a receptionist asks an individual to fill in the time and date for a future healthcare appointment on a reminder card, the subsequent no-show rate for those appointments drops by 18% compared with when the receptionist completes the card. This is an especially good example of a costless change leading to a big difference.

Finally, while it is heartening to recognise the opportunities for these costless, ethical, and empirically grounded influence-informed changes it is also important to note that none of the changes described in this piece emerged naturally as a best practice. Instead it was internal stakeholders working alongside specialist support teams in partnership with leading behavioural scientists that was necessary for their conception and successful implementation.

It’s a three-way partnership that – much like the three-legged stool – should provide a solid foundation for responsible and productive change well into the future.

Steve Martin is an international bestselling author and behavioural expert. His new book The Small Big is published by Profile Books

Jon Ainger is a director at Impower


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