Behavioural Science: Getting going

You’ve heard me multiple times talking about the need to use Behavioural Science in Public Health practice and to help what local government does more widely. The Local Government Association each year has a competitive fund for councils wanting to use behavioural insights.  Back in 2015 I wrote a piece in LGC, a local government magazine, saying I felt there was no “one size fits all” approach to prevention   and then earlier this year I wrote in LGC about the need to take a balanced approach to prevention which included wider determinants as well as behaviour change and how we could improve on the Green Paper.   Again, earlier this year I wrote some pieces for The MJ, a local government magazine on prevention and choosing how to do behaviour change . 

If you’re going to use behavioural science, you need to do it properly or don’t do it at all. That’s the first lesson from the four years we’ve been in this game ramping up our action and applying it where we thought evidence and context provided best fit for behavioural science informed approaches.

In Hertfordshire we in the public sector locally have benefited from a steady stream of behavioural change and social and behavioural science expertise at the University (some of it working with business.) Watch this space for more things they will be doing soon.

In the County Council we already delivering targeted social marketing work as part of our behavioural science work – our projects on smoking in pregnancy and young peoples’ mental health have won awards.  We employ several health psychologists. We are running pilot projects using animal assistance to humans (watch this space, more coming soon) and we have used a range of psychology and other behavioural sciences in work on health improvement, supporting people self-manage with long term conditions, reducing risk to young motorbikers, and working with vulnerable and complex adults. We need to do more in this space and we are evaluating.

And in this context our latest project has started. We have a Behavioural Science Unit/ Behaviour Change Unit as a new team (five people) operating from within the Public Health directorate but working corporately across the council.

They have been recruited to provide leadership, expertise and drive around using behavioural sciences (not restricted to behavioural insights)  to improve how we operate, provide services and try to influence positive outcomes.

The Unit’s mission is to design behaviourally informed interventions to encourage, support and enable HCC Directorates and Hertfordshire residents to achieve better outcomes.  From supporting design of initiatives to support young people with mental health issues to designing initiatives to improve outcomes for people with complex needs through helping people avoid diabetes by behaviour change, and much more, we will be looking to apply behavioural science across the council.

The team is a mixed skills team with psychology, behavioural insights, evidence implementation, evaluation and more in their tool bags.

For us, this goes hand in hand with a wider determinants and systems approach, so we are developing our health in all policies approach too.  If all you do is wider determinants, you ignore real tangible individual and interpersonal issues amenable to action by behavioural science. If all you do is individual work, you ignore the systemic issues which keep people from being healthy.  It is not an either or approach, these two important sets of issues must be held in dynamic tension to build a healthier population.

Currently we are training around 40 colleagues around the County Council to act as champions, to help identify and progress opportunities to apply behavioural science insights to our work. We are also providing training

Many of our aspirations and goals involve people changing their behaviour in order to be successful, for example improving health through reducing tobacco and alcohol use, increasing recycling by residents, and the appropriate use and uptake of HCC services.  The BCU will offer support with the planning, development, implementation, and evaluation of a range of behavioural science initiatives to support County Council teams to reach these goals.  We also want to work closely with NHS and other services.

We know well that this will be an acid test of whether we can do it, and whether it can be done.  Austerity is not over in local government, and if we are serious that behavioural science can help us provide real improvement in outcomes in these times, then we have to give it the best go we can.

We’ve started.

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