Why localism is needed for behaviour change

By Dan Corry | 20 May 2020
  • Dan Corry

Trying to get the public to change their behaviour is a very tricky game. Yet it is vital to achieve many important things because, in truth, governments do not have endless levers they can pull that guarantee desired results, at least in non-authoritarian liberal democracies.

This is true in many areas that we lazily think of as operating via rules, policing and punishment. It has always been key to ensuring social order for instance. It isn’t just that we have rules saying you will get fined if you don’t stop at traffic lights or don’t wear your seat belt, and that we employ police to enforce it. Rather, we create an environment and set of expectations within which people want to do what is desired by policy makers.

We need people to look out at their neighbourhood to spot ‘bad’ goings on – so that observation becomes part of the enforcement mechanism (although not to the extent of spying on their neighbours...). We want people to recycle their rubbish instead of sending it to landfill. Again, rules are brought in, but in the end they only work if the population as a whole thinks it is a reasonable thing to ask for and is not too burdensome to carry out.

Coronavirus has seen governments struggling to lead behaviour change. At the outset our own Government apparently and rather infamously seemed to be listening to a lot to behavioural science experts trying to guess what people’s reaction to tough rules would be – in circumstances where in truth they did not and could not know.

It was hard at the beginning to get everyone to comprehend the degree of danger and therefore the real need to shut down much of our social interaction – and the income streams and jobs that go with this. The Government found, like many before them, that ambiguity and lack of clarity was an issue.

If things are unclear, some will go for a very lax interpretation. If others who are inclined to a more stringent version see people not obeying that and getting away with it, they too will behave off-message and the whole thing collapses. It’s much easier when you impose a set of clear, pretty unambiguous rules – ‘stay at home’ – and even punish top bods if they break them to make the point.

But trouble lies the minute it is time to relax the restrictions. Even putting aside the debate on timing, it was always going to be hard to get the communications right. Confusing and sometimes contradictory messages create chaos when we need clarity. You want the tanker to change direction a little. If you don’t say something to signal change loud enough then people may not hear you; but the danger of over-doing it and having the tanker heading for the rocks is immense. When lives as well as livelihoods are at stake this really matters.

But as hard as leaving lockdown was always going to be, one can also argue that central government, trying to steer the behaviour of people they don’t know well and who in some cases they lack legitimacy with, has undermined its ability to guide behaviours. Much better for localism to click in here – at a more local level, people know what works, how to talk to their community, how to link in to local opinion formers, how to socially enforce. To use one of the Prime Minister’s phrases, perhaps local ‘common sense’ is a better mechanism than some national version of it. Councils can be key here – as can local community groups and charities – in setting social norms that people will want to follow.

Of course, councils don’t always get it right. Some of the early actions to close parks completely were perhaps misjudged, but in general things have worked better where local actors are free to exercise common sense. Clearly the media feel this a bit, as some of the metro mayors have been very prominent in the debates, as have the leaders of the devolved governments. This is not to say we don’t need some level of consistency to avoid confusion, but that more trust in local government and other local community groups and charities would pay dividends. Maybe that is something positive we can take out of this crisis.

Dan Corry is chief executive of NPC – a think-tank and consultancy on third sector issues. He is a former Treasury and Downing Street economic adviser

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