Local government and nudges

(Colin Bell)

Been reading through the latest report from the New Local Government Network, entitled Changing Behaviours. (Downloadable from here.) They’re a UK thinktank who are looking into how local government can reinvent itself and help strengthen local communities.

The report’s case-studies aren’t much to do with sustainability, but the overall conclusions seem to be highly applicable. One is that you need to appeal to people on the basis of their existing values – this now seems to be a standard idea, but not one taken so much into account by campaigning, or local government communication.

A second is that we should try and foster “civic behaviour”, which includes some self-reliance and not the assumption that the state will do everything for you. Where this report goes further than some versions of the more standard “nudge” is that local government has a role to help provide civic leadership for this behaviour.

This requires a third point: local government needs to reconsider its role, and (re)gain some skills – first two quoted directly

  • Establish the underlying conditions for behaviour change by developing
    a clear value-led civic and managerial leadership and the requisite trust.
  • Move to a communicating, facilitating and enabling state with major
    implications for culture, skills and organisational design.
  • See itself in partnership with the public, not just being a service provider.

Now, extending the principles from where the report leaves off, the same kinds of ideas seem to need to apply to both national government and businesses as well

There’s a challenge here though. All this takes time, and – as comes through clearly in the report – many people don’t want to take the time to do something if they don’t need to – or even to think about the alternatives. Hardly surprising in today’s time-stressed world. So this seems to be a particular challenge for civic behaviour.

But the key point seems to be the need for partnership between government and individual, and greater trust – hard at the best of times. For sustainability, anything involving higher taxes or costs is bound to be regarded with great suspicion, so the need for a trusting relationship becomes higher. Nudges from government with no behaviour change at that level are unlikely to have any real impact.


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