Understanding behaviour change and the role of conditionality

May 15, 2014     Leave a Comment

This Monday, the third expert seminar as part of the ESRC ‘Welfare Conditionality: Sanctions, Support and Behaviour Change’ research project took place in Sheffield. A range of experts, speaking from diverse perspectives (economics, human geography, sociology and psychology) were invited to give their take on the role of welfare conditionality in changing the behaviour of welfare recipients.

For me, a key theme during the day was that making access to welfare benefits and services conditional is only one of a multitude of tools and mechanisms that might be used to shift people’s behaviour:

  • ‘nudge’ techniques seek to alter the frame or ‘choice architecture’ within which people make decisions, to steer them towards better ones (e.g. putting fruit at eye level in cafeterias rather than unhealthy snacks to steer people towards healthier choices);
  • benchmarking people’s own choices against those of their peers can help encourage people to behave in line with certain social norms (e.g. lowering their energy consumption or paying their taxes);
  • influence and persuasion through the provision of information or ‘assertive engagement’ with welfare recipients to encourage them to make a particular choices offer an alternative means to shift behaviour;
  • opportunities for deliberation can be created to promote more reasoned and democratically informed choices and behaviours;
  • incentives (financial or non-financial) can be offered to encourage people to act in certain ways (e.g. to volunteer in their local community or desist from particular kinds of anti-social behaviour);
  • a system of fines and punishments can be established within the criminal justice system that seek to discourage and/or prevent particular kinds of behaviour (e.g. the criminal justice and penal system).

Welfare conditionality relies on another mechanism – the threat of depriving an individual of access to something they need and/or want – to change their behaviour. In the context of sharp increases in the use of sanctions within the benefit system, the use of behaviour conditionality within the welfare system is increasingly a matter of intense and polarised public and political debate. This is in large part due to reports of the ill effects and hardship that many argue is resulting from the extension and ramping up of the conditionality regime, despite the fact that conditionality is often justified on the basis that it encourages behaviour that will benefit the individual targeted and/or wider society.

The wider research project of which this event formed part seeks to contribute to this debate by providing a robust evidence base on the effectiveness and ethics of welfare conditionality and the contributions to the expert seminar gave the research team considerable food for thought.

Sam Nguyen from the Behaviour Insights Team (previously based within the Cabinet Office) outlined his behavioural economics inspired take on conditionality.  He highlighted the fascinating lessons that can be taken from the behavioural economic evidence base, sharing examples of how minor and low-cost changes to the way, for instance, job centre advisers communicate with claimants via text message can effect the likelihood that claimants attend events tailored to their needs.

Dr Jessica Pykett, a human geographer from the University of Birmingham, then spoke on her research exploring and critiquing behavioural forms of governance, with a particular focus on the use of psychology and neuroscience in a variety of policy areas, including the use of psychometric testing of out-of-work benefit claimants. Her critique highlighted some of the assumptions underpinning  these ‘neuroliberal’ policy approaches. (Download her presentation)

Dr Karl Taylor, a Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, used data from the longitudinal British Household Panel Survey (now Understanding Society) to demonstrate  how government welfare policies – in this case, the implementation of Tax Credits – can affect the expectations and therefore decisions of those who are out-of-work in ways that decrease the duration of spells of unemployment. (Download his presentation)

Will Leggett, Senior Lecturer in sociology at the University of Birmingham sought to map two distinct models of behaviour change – ‘nudge’ and ‘think’ – onto issues of welfare conditionality, helping clarify the different assumptions and rationales that underpin attempts to change behaviour in different ways. (Download his presentation)

Professor Paul Hoggett closed the day by discussing the value of psycho-social approaches in understanding the interplay between individual psychology and social structures in determining why people behave in certain ways in particular circumstances. He then led an incredibly useful discussion about how we take forward the day’s proceedings in continuing to develop our own research.

These ideas and discussions will feed into to the ongoing work being undertaken in this project. The research team have now almost completed the first phase of fieldwork – a series of interviews with key informants involved in the design of conditional welfare policies. The next stage of the research involves seeking to understand the perspectives and experiences of the ‘street level bureaucrats’ i.e. managers and frontline workers charged with implementing and interpreting conditional approaches to welfare across a range of policy fields. Over the coming year we will also undertake the first of three interviews with a large panel of welfare recipients themselves subject to conditional forms of welfare. You can read more about the ongoing programme of research here.

Beth Watts, May 2014

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