Changing behaviour: A public policy perspective!

Education is the strongest weapon to build reform in the community for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer plus (LGBTIQ+) questioning youth.

The article talks about the successful approaches we can use to stimulate debate and behavioural change in society. It also outlines our contemporary government challenges and the challenge of how democratic governments have (and can) effectively influence the behaviour of their citizens, public services and information to modify behaviour in the “public interest”.

The role of regulating or influencing behaviour is, of course, not a new one for governments—they have long used a range of traditional policies, strategies, tools, sanctions, regulations, taxes and subsidies to persuade and sometimes, even as far as to manipulate their citizens, especially in the areas of welfare, health, crime, employment, education and environmental issues.

It’s obvious, to achieve significant change it requires the active involvement and cooperation of all citizens but, the buck does not stop there! Our politicians need to be willing to listen and acknowledge our concerns and the needs of all their citizens. The government needs to be more transparent and innovative with their approaches and engagement, especially when dealing with individuals of diverse gender and sexual orientation.

Influencing human behaviour is very complex and the effectiveness of traditional approaches may be limited without some additional education, tools and resources to help engage with youth, if they want to really understand the issues impacting LGBTIQ+ lives. So, what are the basic reasons that governments want to influence or change behaviour?

There are many examples of this in the areas of public health (e.g. obesity and tobacco use) and in the environmental area (e.g. recycling and water use). Governments in a range of countries are becoming increasingly interested in tapping into the improved knowledge about behavioural change. There are three key factors, outlined below, that have encouraged this interest.

The most fundamental reason is that it can confer economic, social and community benefits. For many social policy problems, human behaviour is very complex and difficult, especially if we want to achieve sustained behavioural change. We must not forget that in some cases, individuals do not always behave in their own best interest, little own the best interest of the community around them. For example; people continue to choose unhealthy lifestyles, for example, despite knowing that such lifestyles will cause them long-term harm.

The model of rational choice tends to ignore the wider environmental influences on human behaviour, such as the power of peer pressure and family expectations, and key motivators other than self-interest. It can also be difficult for individuals to accurately estimate future costs and benefits, particularly if there are relatively high levels of uncertainty around them.

The Australian Public Service (APS) is learning from the different theories and empirical evidence on behavioural change and, on a case-by-case basis, from trialling different models for different situations. One of the key learnings from international experience is that public sector agencies need to be mindful that behavioural change policy goals have to be reasonably congruent with a particular society’s views on the right balance between individual responsibility and government responsibility. These attitudes can change dramatically over time, however, and can be led and influenced by government measures.

The problem is that policy is still being developed on the back of an anachronistic understanding of how behaviour is influenced and what makes people change. If we are to move beyond the current limited policy approach, then new thinking is required… In recent years a great deal more has been learned about why human beings behave in the ways they do: Yet speedy uptake of the new evidence by the marketers and advertisers has not been matched in government and policymaking circles, you got to ask, is our politicians really that ignorant or has our government got their priorities wrong.

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