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Nudging, steering or shoving people into the big society?

How will we be motivated to want to help each other when we are warned that our colleague who’s been laid off or our neighbour who’s disabled and cannot work are not as deserving as us and are becoming a drain on the economy? For those of us out of work, how can we get a job when there aren’t any and when they are hardly any available?

We also know that the biggest costs to public services — i.e. from health to policing and even welfare — are around chronic lifestyle behaviours and conditions.

So could the government be using this “behavioural” approach to welfare reform? They could encourage benefit claimants to be able to do paid volunteering without having their benefits cut through a Community Allowance. This would improve their skills, give them something productive and meaningful to do and increase the likelihood of getting a job. Or should they use a “shove” approach — from shoving them on a bus to go and get a job?

If we reflect on what motivates us to act and think in certain ways, we are often treated as individuals acting in isolation of everything and everyone except the money in our purse. But people influence us, our neighbourhood influence us, things we cannot predict influence us too. Context changes that too, it’s unlikely that the person who encourages you to smoke more is the person who has the greatest influence on how you manage your pension.

If you are trying to nudge the general public into contributing to society, you need to generate a “cascading” of community behaviours. You can only do this if there enough community activists in a particular neighbourhood who are contributing towards the community. This increases the level of “persuadibility” in that neighbourhood of others feeling motivating to participate.

Likewise, if there are enough people in a neighbourhood who don’t work, then the level of “persuadibility” of new entrants to get a job will be much lower and therefore more difficult to get them into work. You could therefore have a “boom to bust” mechanic going on in particular communities, where public services and community groups have been able to support these catalysts and where that support is suddenly withdrawn and in parallel, many people become unemployed, the desire for communities to help each other suddenly fades away and the desire for people to find work also degrades.

We need to give people the tools to understand how their brains, behaviours and environments interact helps them make better decisions and tackle habits such as smoking, binge drinking and overeating.

But where worklessness has been embedded into communities, how can we re-inject that sense of hope and energy?

As @davidwilcox says “if u want people to act, support them. If u want people to talk, listen



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Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese