Until a few years ago the generic knowledge required by a local authority senior officer might have been of structures of governance, legal and financial systems, of organisational structures and change strategies. But to this we can now add an understanding of what drives human behaviour. Increasingly, we can expect local government leaders to draw on insights from fields such as behavioural economics, social psychology, social marketing, even anthropology and neuroscience.
In this forest of new findings and perspectives, leaders need to identify which are the most useful ways of framing their understanding. One such framework is offered by cultural theory. This approach doesn't offer simple answers but it can help identify the right questions and, more importantly, give clues as to why some strategies are doomed to failure while others have a chance of success.
The rise of behaviour change
The idea of behaviour change as a goal of policy used to seem vaguely sinister, and to some people it still does. But starting with the 2004 report on changing behaviour from the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit, this concept has become a central part of social and public policy debate.
The emphasis on behaviour change reflects the pursuit of varied, but overlapping, objectives. Despite rising public spending in the post war decades, key social problems persisted and new ones emerged. Defenders of welfare provision faced a crisis of legitimacy. Benefit recipients were often portrayed as becoming dependent, and sometimes exploiting their status. In response, modernising progressives sought to re-legitimise welfare, a strategy summed up in President Bill Clinton's promise to provide 'a hand-up, not a hand-out'.
This theme was taken up by New Labour in the New Deal, which threatened those rejecting the routes to employment and training with having their welfare benefits withdrawn. This idea of conditionality is a subset of a wider communitarian commitment to rights and responsibilities. It is now conventional for any announcement about new provision to the public (especially the disadvantaged) to be accompanied by a statement about the conditions attached.
Conditionality is not just about legitimacy. It is also supposed to benefit those to whom it applies: the disadvantaged, it is argued, need clear signals and incentives if they are to improve their lives. But as well as applying to a strata of society, behaviour change has extended into a set of behaviours deemed to be destructive to the individual and society. Thus behaviour change has become a key objective of public health and environmental policy; in areas ranging from obesity to recycling, from sexual health to energy use.
Generally, the idea of behaviour change focuses on strategies of communication and incentive rather than compulsion. Even in relation to smoking, the legal ban on lighting up in public places was justified on the classical liberal grounds of defending the rights of the innocent non-smoker. Supporters of the policy are now pointing to higher smoking cessation rates as evidence of success. It seems it is only when the change has been safely implemented that policy-makers are willing to admit paternalistic motives.
As the explicit aim of behaviour change spreads first from the disadvantaged to any of us deemed to be behaving in self destructive or anti-social ways, it links to another debate; this time about public engagement. It has long been a commonplace to recognise that the outcomes of public services depend on the ways in which the public use those services. Thus health treatment is more effective if patients pay regard to health advice; schooling is more successful if parents get their children to follow school rules and read and study at home; policing is more powerful if the community is also committed to crime prevention and detection.
This insight challenges the idea of public service 'delivery' with its connotation of service users as passive recipients. In recent years we have seen the rise of an alternative conception, of public services as a co-production between service provider and recipient/citizen. Taken together, ideas of conditionality, behaviour change and co-production represent the re-emergence of the public as the subject, rather than simply the object, of public services.
At the same time as central and local government has started to think more systematically about behaviour change, so our way of thinking about what drives human behaviour has undergone a major shift.
A combination of new research and real world events – most dramatically the credit crunch – have exposed the myth of 'homo economous'. This is the idea that human behaviour can be understood sufficiently as the choices of self-interested, utility maximising individuals.
We have over recent years seen the emergence of powerful new insights into the complex reality of human decision-making. Having read books like Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge, we are all becoming experts on the decision-making heuristics (rules of thumb) that, for example, lead people to put the short term over the long term, to follow the crowd and to fill in missing knowledge by what is expected rather than what is there.
The rise of social marketing – which has gone from the margins of public health to being an integral part of the public policy-maker's toolkit – reflects the welcome move to a more subtle understanding of human motivation than the mechanistic cost-benefit model traditionally relied upon by Treasury mandarins.
However, a weakness of some of the literature on new models of decision-making is that, deriving from disciples primarily focussed on the individual agent, it understates and under-theorises the dimension of culture and social norms.
Put simply, human actions can be seen to emerge from three levels of mental process:
*The automatic and hard-wired – the things we do because of who we are as a species.
*The tacit and culturally conditioned – the things we tend to do because of our social nature and the norms which pertain in our social milieu.
*The consciously arrived at – the things we decide to do and over which we feel we have choice.
Framing the interaction of what has been described as the 'elephant' (our hard-wired impulses) and the 'rider' (our conscious mind) are the cultural norms and patterns that provide the social context of human behaviour. We might describe this as the terrain across which the elephant walks.
The four paradigms of cultural theory
Cultural theory offers one way of thinking about change in organisations (broadly defined as any group of people trying to do something together) at the level of norms and values. It is one of a number of theories of plural rationality which argue that social strategies are reducible neither to a single motivation (as in homo economous), nor an infinite range, but a finite array.
Cultural theory suggests there are four different ways of thinking about, choosing and pursuing change in organisations.
These ways of viewing the world will be expressed differently and the ways in which they interact is inherently unpredictable but there does seem to be some evidence that in some form or another they will emerge whenever groups of people try to make social decision. There is even some emerging evidence the four ways have some neurological basis, involving distinct bits of mental wiring. The ways are:
These paradigms emerge as organisations face problems and develop solutions. They are not personality types, although some people may have a predisposition towards one or other way of viewing issues. But as the perspectives emerge they are not just a way of describing the world but a lens through which it is seen. They are theories of change in themselves but, in situations of conflict, more often expressed as critiques of the other ways of doing things. As each offers only a partial view, all four views have an Achilles' heel – a flaw or paradox which threatens to undermine its case.
The egalitarian paradigm
This sees successful change as being driven bottom up through collective action by those who are united in their shared values and status. The idealism of egalitarians (emphasising the possibility of equality and the power of shared values) leads them to feel that (human) nature has been corrupted, and this is linked to a view of nature as being highly vulnerable to exploitation and destruction. Egalitarians tend to see individualists as selfish and irresponsible and hierarchists as out of touch and overbearing. The paradox of egalitarianism is that while it espouses shared values, it gains its strength by being exclusive (only those with the right values or status are seen as valid or can join). An example of this is the uneasy alliance sometimes seen between environmentalists and anti-immigration movements. The adherents of these different views may have contrasting ideological and class interests, but they share a view that the natural order of things is being corrupted and threatened in the name of progress.
The hierarchist paradigm
This sees successful change relying on leadership, expertise, rules and regulation. If these things are in place then the potentially dangerous cycles and vagaries of nature (including human nature) can be managed. Hierarchists see the other paradigms as naïve and unbalanced, but feel that each has its place as long as hierarchy allots and regulates those places. The paradox of hierarchy is that while the top levels of organisations try to present a face of order and authority to the outside world, they contain within themselves the four paradigms. People may be members of hierarchies, and in that role adopt a hierarchical world view, but when it comes to conflicts within the hierarchy they may adopt an egalitarian, individualist or fatalistic stance. Hierarchists fear this guilty secret being exposed and the consequent loss of the legitimacy (the key source of hierarchical power in democratic societies).
The individualist paradigm
This sees successful change as the result of individual initiative and competition. Individualists don't need to worry about pursuing their own interests as the sum of individual actions is collective good and, anyway, the world is resilient to change. While individualists recognise the need for some hierarchy, they see the other paradigms as self-serving – hierarchists and egalitarians are hiding their own interests behind their paternalism and collectivism, while fatalists are simply excusing their laziness or lack of talent. The paradox of individualism is that it espouses meritocracy while tending, over time, to foster unmerited inequality and exclusion.
The fatalist paradigm
This sees successful change as unlikely and, in as much as it is possible, random in its causes and consequences. The world is unpredictable and unmanageable. Fatalists view the other paradigms with indifference or scepticism, although they will often tolerate them for the sake of a quiet life, or in order to help justify their own inaction. The paradox of fatalism is that fatalists know (even if they don't admit it) that they rely on non-fatalists to keep the world turning.
Seeking clumsy solutions
These paradigms are perspectives that emerge dynamically (the more one emerges the more it leads to the others emerging in response) and condition our responses. Politicians and policy-makers often strive for solutions that will somehow transcend differences and make everyone happy. But, according to cultural theory, it is almost impossible to create a synthesis of the paradigms as they are always in tension – like repelling magnets. Instead, the best context for the emergence of sustainable solutions to organisational and policy challenges is to allow each approach to be in play, tapping into the energy that each has to offer (while recognising the inevitability of fatalism) and managing the capacity of each to disrupt the solutions of the others.
An example of an unsuccessful neat solution is the Kyoto accord. Designed by hierarchists, and praised by egalitarians, it offered no incentives to individualists and was unrealistic about the fatalism of most people in the face of climate change. According to cultural theorist Michael Thompson, a micro example of a successful clumsy solution was the development of the Arsenal Emirates Stadium, bringing together of the different interest of the individualist actor (Arsenal FC), the egalitarian actors (local residents and club supporters) and the hierarchical actor (Islington council).
More controversially the fact that the National Health Service is now achieving unprecedented user satisfaction ratings may reflect its 'clumsy' balance of individualist change drivers (choice and competition), hierarchical (expertise, strategy, targets and regulation) and egalitarian (professionalism and the public service ethos).
As the table opposite outlines, from the perspective of solution-seekers (leaders and policy-makers) variations within each paradigm can be placed on a normative continuum. At one end, advocates of one paradigm tend to present their case in a way which is dogmatic, defensive and hostile to all others. At the other, the adherents recognise plurality, engage with other perspectives and acknowledge that in the real world the best solutions are clumsy.
Those seeking to create the conditions for clumsy solutions have two tasks. The first is to ensure that all the paradigms are considered, if not, at best, the solution will be sub-optimal, while, at worst, it is destined to be sabotaged by those whose view of change is not accommodated. But the best context for clumsy solutions requires not just that the different perspectives are considered, or even present, but that they are inclined to work with each other.
As paradigms derive their power both from their internal logic and from their antagonism to other perspectives, the more each rests on its positive case the more likely it is to engage constructively with the others. This leads to the paradox that the best way to encourage clumsiness is to encourage the advocates of each world view to make their own best case. Thus the effective hierarchist (solution-seekers in state organisations will tend to be hierarchists) welcomes and fosters manifestations of egalitarianism, encourages displays of individualism and sees fatalism as inevitable at a certain level, but beyond that (like a canary in a mine) providing a warning that clumsiness is in retreat.
Behaviour change in a cold climate
The statistician George Box once said 'all models are wrong but some are useful'. This is a good way of thinking about how we conceptualise social behaviour. Policy-makers need to choose and refine useful ways of thinking about what shapes individual decisions and social behaviours.
As we enter a long period of public spending retrenchment, the search will be on for major productivity gains.
There may be scope to cut costs in administration and back office, some non-statutory services may simply fade away, but if the next few years are not to a dismal round of salami slices, local government need to think about not just re-engineering but reconceptualising public services. Personal budgets in social care are one of the few examples of such a profound shift. As in this example, service transformation will involve a recalibration of the relationship between service planner, service provider and service user.
Big thinking like this involves engaging with our hard-wired characteristics and the dynamics of social problem-solving, as well as the explicit process of conscious decision-making. Paradoxically, it is by understanding the limitations of conscious cognition in day-to-day decision-making that we can see what really makes it special; this is what is called meta-cognition, or 'thinking about thinking'. In society as in individual counselling, understanding who we are makes it easier for us to know how to change what we do. Thus the process of making collective decisions and winning public support should become one which seeks to engage people in a much richer conversation about who we are, what we want and what we have to do to achieve what we want. Given what lies ahead, now is a good time to be thinking about how to promote such a conversation.
In developing new solutions for the difficult world into which we are now moving, local government leaders will need to have models not just about how laws, systems and processes work, but how people do too.
Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister. He was appointed to the Labour Party in 1994 to establish Labour's rebuttal operation. His activities before the Labour Party included being a county councillor, a parliamentary candidate, a university research fellow and the director of a unit monitoring policy in the health service. Until December 1998, Matthew was Assistant General Secretary for the Labour Party. During the 1997 General Election he was Labour's Director of Policy and a member of the Party's central election strategy team. He was the Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research between 1999 and 2003, Britain's leading centre left thinktank.