Changing behaviours…

Posted on June 18, 2007

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I’m working in two areas at the moment, a survey of sustainability values/behaviours; and an approach for integrating education for sustainability across the institution. This latter area is as much about a process as structure – how do we get academics from computing, midwifery, engineering and sports (to name a few) all excited about the possibilities of education for sustainability?

I’ve found myself then, searching material on the promotion of environmental behaviours. What a goldmine! I’ll be here for weeks.

The UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) is strong in this area. One set of four reports called Promoting Pro-Environmental Behaviour: Existing Evidence to Inform Better Policy Making by Andrew Darnton and others is very good (and long, the summary is 82 pages – I’m nearly at the end of the theory report). In the meantime, here are the key messages from the summary (they have a public policy bent but I’m sure we can forgive that).

Behaviours are complex and non-linear. Each behaviour is determined by various (often inter-related) factors, many of which need addressing simultaneously to facilitate change. Thus interventions should combine multiple types of instrument in a ‘package’ of measures (e.g. infrastructure, fiscal measures, and information). It is suggested that interventions first address external factors (most notably infrastructure and pricing) and then internal factors (e.g. psychological or attitudinal). As well as working on multiple factors, interventions need to work on multiple levels – ultimately addressing society as a whole in order to achieve sustained change.

Different audiences behave differently, and require targeted and/or tailored interventions. To be effective, policy measures usually need to be highly context specific. Devolving responsibility for policy development and delivery to local bodies (Local Authorities, business and industry groups, the voluntary sector and community groups) can help to ensure their suitability and can also help to build their legitimacy. Care should be taken to ensure that the relevant skills and resources are available within these organisations to take on these additional duties.

The audience for a change intervention should not be regarded as a passive target. Policy-makers need to view target audiences and other key stakeholders as ‘actors’ at the heart of the change process. They should be involved at the earliest opportunity in the change process. Ideally, a total partnership working approach should be adopted in which change partners (including members of the public) are involved from the start in defining and redefining the problem through a continuous cycle of action and reflection, from which learning and innovation will result.

Feedback is vital to driving and sustaining change. Instead of understanding changing behaviour as a single event, it should be viewed as an ongoing process.Policy-makers should ensure that interventions incorporate opportunities to learn from policy audiences – learning captured and fed back from the change process should influence subsequent policy. In order to facilitate this important reflective process, more effective and consistent data collection and collation is required. In future, the appropriate formal evaluation structures should be put in place at the stage of policy-development.


Government policy needs to convey a consistent message and visibly pull in one direction. The suite of policies emerging from government needs to avoid contradictions and inconsistencies in order to convey clear messages to target audiences and the public in general. This requirement for harmony needs to apply to all Defra policies and to those coming from the EU, and (possibly more importantly) to those being developed by other government departments.There needs to be greater collaboration and interdepartmental working to achieve this.

Individuals have the potential to act as ‘change champions’. Individuals are vital to delivering pro-environmental change, not just for themselves (on the level of individuals) but also within organisations and networks as ‘agents for change’ (both as managers and ‘change champions’). Engaging, and nurturing,key individuals may be more effective in bringing about system-wide change than targeting the behaviour of all individuals.

Policy design should incorporate considerations of equity and fairness. It is clearly important that policy-makers ensure that polices at least avoid disproportionate negative financial and environmental impacts for the most vulnerable in society and at best reduce inequalities of outcome. Equity concerns are particularly associated with environmental taxes and charges,which can negatively impact on the competitiveness of small businesses, as well as on disadvantaged individuals. Compliance is likely to prove most problematic where policies are perceived as unfair, or poorly targeted, and where alternative options do not appear to be available.

Action needs to be taken now to address the pressing environmental problems we face today and in the future. The appropriateness and relevance of policies to encourage pro-environmental behaviour should be viewed in light of these massive and important global challenges. More far-reaching, targeted and effective policy action is needed than is currently evident. Change takes time, and measures need to be put into place now to influence societal change and respond to environmental pressures.

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Posted in: behaviour, policy