Behavioural science draws on the insights of psychology, anthropology, neuroscience and behavioural economics to better understand how and why people decide and act.

The success of policy and public service campaigns depends on successfully informing the perceptions, decisions, and actions of the public. Behavioural science can inform better communication with citizens, ultimately improving the lives of the public.

Behavioural Science and Public Sector Communications

What can behavioural science offer to public sector communications?

  • A systematic approach to understanding problems
  • An understanding of how to apply of knowledge about how people tend to behave
  • A way to remove systematic barriers with effective interventions, including communications
  • An ability to identify what may be preventing behaviours

The Government Communication Service

The Government Communication Service is the professional body for civil service communications professionals working across government departments, agencies, and arm’s length bodies.

It consists of over 4,500 professionals from across the UK, supporting and promoting the work of 25 ministerial departments, 21 non-ministerial departments and over 300 agencies and other public bodies.

Within the service, there is a behavioural science team that provides expertise as well as consultancy services to major government campaigns. The team’s philosophy is:

When a problem is broken down into its constituent parts, most behaviours can be explained by individuals to their situation in a way that makes sense to them”

They approach problems with a belief that people try to do the best they can, given their circumstances. This thinking prioritises a more empathetic approach to public communications.

In recent years there has been an increase in the application of behavioural science across the UK Government. Today, there’s strong evidence illustrating its impact across a spectrum of challenges, from reducing medical prescription errors and encouraging loft insulation to increasing debt repayments [1].

Most of these behaviour changes have been encouraged by making small, low-cost changes to existing processes such as a slight reframe in an email subject line, instead of introducing expensive or complex technology.

Principles of Behaviour Change

Dr Paulina Lang is the Behavioural Science Lead at the Cabinet Office. They offer three principles of behaviour change that should be considered by those who are communicating with the public through campaigns.

Identify the OBJECTIVE:

What behaviours the campaign wishes to achieve or change


What is preventing people from engaging in the messages?

Identify the MESSAGE:

Removing barriers with effective messaging

Identifying Behaviour Objectives

When specifying the behaviours a campaign wants to change, it is important for a campaign to ensure that that it actually has the potential to change behaviour. Dr Lang recommends asking questions during the early planning stages such as:

  • What specific behaviours is your audience doing, or not doing?
  • What specific behaviours are you trying to encourage?
  • What audience has the power to create this behaviour change?

Behaviour can be defined as an action that is observable. Dr Lang emphasised that behaviour is not a change in attitude or an increase in awareness, it is simply action-based.

It is essential for behaviour objectives to be identified at the start of campaign planning to provide clarity, focus and motivation to the communication strategy.

For example, The Behavioural Science team at the Government Communication Service worked on a campaign to encourage civil servants to have Covid-19 tests before they came to work.

The behaviour objective they identified was that the office workers would take action to get themselves tested. Other objectives that were non-behaviour based included creating awareness among civil servants of the importance of getting tested, however, it was the behaviour objective that drove the structure of the campaign as this is what would really spark change.

Identifying Barriers

When identifying barriers to change it is important to identify what is preventing the behaviour from happening.

Dr Lang explains that for behaviour change to occur on the back of a campaign, the public has to be capable of change, they have to have an opportunity to change and they must feel motivated to do so. Barriers start to emerge when these conditions are not met.

Are the audience capable?

  • Does your audience have the right knowledge to change their behaviour?
  • Does your audience have the right skills to change their behaviour?
  • Are they physically and mentally able to do it?

Is there an opportunity to change?

  • Does your audience have the resources to do it, can they access the tools needed for change?
  • Will the system or environment allow them to do it, do they have the time?
  • Will the people around them help or hinder them doing it, will people tell them it’s a waste of time?

Are the audience motivated to change?

  • Does your audience believe they should do it, do they think it is relevant to their work?
  • Does your audience want to do it, are they interested?
  • Do they have the necessary habits in place to do it?

When these potential barriers have been identified solutions can be drawn up to develop effective messaging.

Creating Effective Messages

The three methods that behavioural scientists use when looking to overcome behavioural barriers in developing successful public sector communication campaigns include:

Getting the target audience’s attention

  • The audience should be able to identify that the message is directed at them
  • The message should use familiar language and words
  • There should be nothing else competing for their attention
  • They should be able to trust the source of the message
  • The message should be hard to ignore

Telling the audience what they have to do

  • The audience are clear on what behaviour they should be changing
  • The audience are clear on who should be carrying the behaviour out
  • The message helps the audience form a plan of action
  • The next steps are clear
  • The message conveys appropriate urgency and timeliness

Motivate the audience to act

  • The message should be framed positively
  • It is clear why one would want to follow the instructions
  • The consequences of not doing anything are clearly set out
  • The message makes people feel empowered to act
  • The action sounds fun, interesting, or intriguing

The Local Government Association emphasises that following behaviour led initiatives and continuously testing them through innovation will mean communications never stop improving.

In Practice: Using Behavioural Science to Tackle Anti-Social Behaviour

Following the 2011 London riots, vandalism, looting and anti-social behaviour was a significant problem in many boroughs of the city. The Royal Borough of Greenwich partnered with Behavioural Strategy experts from Ogilivy Change, an organisation that work to change behaviour through advertising and campaigns [3].

They painted local shop shutters that were initially torn down, with the faces of local Woolwich babies. They knew that psychology indicates that baby schema evokes feelings of caring, lowering anti-social behaviour.

This reduced overall antisocial behaviour in Woolwich by 24%. The paintings are still present on the shutters, they remain un-vandalised and the shopkeepers have embraced the idea as their own.

Furthermore, with the support of the Greater London Authority, Babies of the Borough 2 is due to be rolled out in West Ealing.

Follow up surveys in the community demonstrate that the shutters have made a difference in social cohesion. Zafar Awan, the owner of a shop that was damaged in the riot, said to the BBC that he “would have the shutter down all day if he could” as so many locals have expressed their enjoyment of looking at the painting of baby Maxwell.

This case study is an example of the power of behavioural science as a tool for changing human behaviour. Behavioural science can be effectively used to communicate messages by placing emotive imagery and campaigns in the community.

[1] The Local Government Association. Behaviour change: The appliance of science to public service interventions and communications

[2] Lang, Paulina Dr. 2021. Behavioural Science Lead at the Cabinet Office

[3] The Local Government Association. 2017. Babies of the Borough – using behavioural insights to reduce anti-social behaviour

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The success of policy and public campaigns depends on moulding the perceptions, decisions, and actions of the public. Dr Paulina Lang, Behavioural Science Lead at the Cabinet Office discussed ways of using behavioural science to improve public communications.

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