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Applied behavioural science is key to combatting the virus

Rachel Angarano

Over the past ten months, we have witnessed something close to a renaissance in behavioural science thinking and growing international recognition of its value in framing Covid-19 messaging to influence target behaviours of citizens and instigate social good.

At IMPOWER, we welcome this shift having seen first-hand the positive impact applied behavioural science has had in public sector organisations; the benefits of which are equally apparent at a local as well as national level.

I recently supported a local authority to implement a range of behavioural science principles across their Covid-19 business grants webpages. These interventions improve access to applicable funding streams and provide greater clarity around eligibility for local businesses. Immediate benefits were realised from this work including: making it easier for residents to interpret and act on guidance, managing demand on the customer helpline and helping to reduce stress levels within local authorities and local businesses at a difficult time.

Simultaneously, I have had similarly productive conversations in other areas of local government, from Localities to Adult Social Care, who reflect key challenges surrounding the uptake of the Covid-19 vaccines (particularly within certain resident and community groups) and the vital role applied behavioural science must now play.

Drawing on these experiences, I have identified three key insights which frontline services must apply when embedding a behavioural focus in their ‘last mile’ fight against Covid-19:

  1. We are heavily influenced by who communicates information.

Choosing your ‘messenger’ carefully will make a real difference to how the information is received, understood and responded to. Perceptions of authority, similarity and trust matter. For example, working with community and faith leaders, and local representatives from a variety of ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, will be vital in driving uptake of Covid-19 vaccines amongst the local population.

  1. Our attention is drawn to what is novel and seems relevant to us.

Consciously positioning key information, so that it is centrally located and less text heavy, will engage users and specify the process so they can get it right first time. For example, we identified opportunities to avoid unnecessary business grant applications by improving the salience around the eligibility criteria and the circumstances in which local businesses were not required to reapply.

  1. We are strongly influenced by what others do.

Social norms have a powerful effect on people’s behaviour and can influence actions in positive (and negative) ways. By communicating what most other people do in a similar situation, such as, ‘the vast majority of people wash their hands’ or ‘most care workers opt for the vaccine’, the audience is more likely follow suit.

Applied behavioural science is a core element of EDGEWORK, IMPOWER’s approach to achieving sustainable change within complex systems, and is a major contributor to the results we achieve with clients.

If you would like to talk to us about your council’s challenges and how behavioural science could help solve them, please do get in touch.

Written by

Rachel Angarano



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