Applying behaviour change techniques to key challenges – the climate emergency, health inequalities and sustainable travel

Our 2022 behavioural insights conference spotlighted examples of work by councils to address the challenges of climate change, sustainable travel and health inequalities, and was attended by 540 delegates across the sector.

Environmental engineer Katie Patrick's keynote presentation highlighted how gamification design can be integrated with behavioural science to ‘nudge’ people’s behaviour in response to the climate emergency. The conference also heard about projects from the New Forest to London to Yorkshire and the Humber in which consortia of councils have been working with the LGA to deliver behavioural interventions at the regional level.

The projects used several behavioural science models, including the ‘behaviour change wheel’, the ‘ABCD’ framework (attention, belief formation, choice, determination) and the ‘APEASE’ formula (affordability, practicability, effectiveness, acceptability, side effects and equity), to identify individual behavioural challenges and to design interventions for them. The projects highlight how important it is that project designers:

  • clearly define the behaviour change they want to encourage
  • gather insights prior to designing interventions
  • ensure that any desired change in behaviour is easy for people to do
  • prepare for expectations (of what is driving certain behaviours) to be challenged.

Using gamification – showing people data, setting benchmarks, and sharing pledges, can help people track their progress and motivate them to change their behaviour.

Although every circumstance is different, behavioural insights tools and models can be tailored for use in a variety of differing local circumstances, demographics and projects.

Using behavioural science and gamification to increase the adoption, attraction and engagement of sustainability programmes

Environmental engineer, designer and author Katie Patrick’s keynote presentation explored how gamification and behavioural science can be used to tap into the motivational core of the human mind to increase the adoption and attraction of sustainability programmes, and levels of engagement in them. Underpinning this theory is the concept of the ‘value action gap’, which shows how people’s behaviours do not always align with their objectives in relation to environmental concerns. Katie gave examples of how showing people real-time environmental data in a visual way has been successful in motivating behaviour change. Using ambient devices which make data ‘glanceable’ – for example, real-time driving speed signage, or displays showing how much recycling is going into a container – are just some examples of how data can be presented publicly to nudge behaviour.

Once people see data, gamification techniques can be used to drive action through reward systems which encourage more of the positive behaviour people want to see. On social media, charts, badges, and other challenges can encourage people to change their behaviour. Encouraging local communities to set intentions and pledges relating to sustainability is also key to changing behaviours.

Katie also highlighted how tapping into social imitation and feelings of social comparison can help to bring about change. For example, publishing data showing levels of engagement in climate change initiatives compared with others can successfully ‘nudge’ behaviour. In her work, Katie has found that focusing on solutions, rather than fear, is far more successful in bringing about sustainable change. Encouraging people to think about their dreams for the planet through ‘earth imagination’ exercises could be a powerful way to drive future behaviour change in relation to the environment.

Q&A with Katie Patrick

Transcript of Q&A with Katie Patrick

Further information

You can find out more about Katie’s work on her website at where you can sign up for free gamification and behaviour design resources and an 'earth imagination' toolkit.

Katie also runs a podcast series – ‘How to save the World?’ (Spotify | Apple | other podcast players) – exploring the environmental psyche and 'what really gets people to make a change to save the planet'. The podcast spotlights the latest behavioural science literature from leading universities – evidence-based knowledge you can use to inform your own environmental campaigns and programmes and to increase public engagement in them.

Using behavioural insights to address health inequalities

Vickie Rowland, Public Health Practitioner from the London Borough of Havering and former Senior Public Health Specialist at Bradford Council, and Stephanie Renucci of innovation and strategy consultancy UNPITCHD, spoke about their project – funded through the LGA behavioural insights programme – in which seven councils in north-east London are using behavioural insights to reduce health inequalities. With support from UNPITCHD, the councils worked together to develop the intervention using the following five-step process:

  1. align on a challenge
  2. identify and map the behaviour to change
  3. design the intervention
  4. launch and run the intervention
  5. analyse the results.

The consortium of councils used local publicly available data to gather insights and identify a common health challenge. From an initial longlist of health challenges, they focused their intervention on increasing the uptake of NHS health checks by working-aged men across the more deprived areas of their boroughs.

They used the ‘ABCD’ (attention, belief formation, choice, determination) framework to identify barriers to the uptake of NHS health checks. Because the ‘ABCD’ formula is simple and accessible, it was effective in upskilling those consortium members who did not have a background in behavioural science.

Insights gathered from focus groups, surveys, and interviews with residents and GPs, identified 12 main barriers limiting the target group’s take-up of NHS health checks – the most prevalent of which was ‘total unawareness of the NHS health check’. Six interventions were suggested to address this challenge.

The intervention finally designed to address the challenge (using the ‘APEASE’ formula of affordability, practicability, effectiveness, acceptability, side effects and equity) will involve sending targeted messages to the target group – each message including a voice note from ‘someone like them’ – to increase their response to invitations to book health check appointments.

The launch of the trial is set to take place in March 2022, with analysis to be conducted and a report to be produced in summer 2022. Outcomes from the trial will be published on our behavioural insights projects webpage.


Getting ‘crabby’ about litter – using behavioural insights to reduce litter in the New Forest

Stewart Phillips, Senior Street Scene Supervisor at New Forest District Council, spoke about the council’s 2020 behaviour change project which had initially been designed to reduce littering from vehicles. The intervention design was adapted to address the unprecedented amounts of waste from coastal littering brought about by more people visiting coastal cities and towns during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council worked with behaviour change specialists Social Engine to gather insights into why people litter. They found that some of the factors driving littering behaviour included cognitive dissonance, social norming (in which people are more likely to litter if they see others doing it), and ‘invisibility’.

The council addressed the issue by launching pilots of two new campaigns: ‘Crabby Crab’ and ‘Look Out for Our Forest’. They provided refuse bags at littering hotspots to encourage people to take their litter home with them and to ‘make doing the right thing easy’ – accompanied by communications including posters of the ‘Crabby Crab’ at coastal sites, to ‘nudge’ behaviour.

The campaign was very successful, resulting in litter decreasing by 10.8 tonnes in July and August 2020 (despite a 40 per cent increase in visitor numbers) – and the council saving £10,000 over the course of a month.

Following the success of the pilots, in 2021 the ‘Crabby Crab’ and ‘Look Out for Our Forest’ campaigns were rolled out across five other coastal sites. In one parish council area, bins that had been overflowing were replaced with refuse bags and ‘Look Out for Our Forest’ signage, leading to a significant reduction in litter.

The council analysed visitor data to measure the overall impact of the campaigns, demonstrating that, despite increased visitor numbers during the course of the intervention from June to September 2021, litter decreased by nine per cent. Social Engine also gathered insights regarding littering from different demographics, enabling the council to develop a matrix of interventions tailored to a range of target groups.

Through these campaigns, the council has developed a framework which can be adapted for future projects. The council is now going to apply all it has learned to tackle the behaviour they had initially planned to address – littering from vehicles.

Further information

Find out more about New Forest District Council’s behavioural insights projects in:

Using behaviour change techniques to encourage active travel across the Yorkshire and Humber region

Nicky Knowles, project lead for the consortium, and Professor Madelynne Arden, Professor of Health Psychology and Director of the Centre for Behavioural Science and Applied Psychology at Sheffield Hallam University, discussed how six local authorities in Yorkshire and the Humber have been working with Sheffield Hallam University as part of the LGA’s Behavioural Insights programme to address a common behavioural challenge.

The initial challenge was to increase sustainable travel by:

  • reducing car use
  • increasing safe use of public transport
  • increasing active travel, for example, walking and cycling.

The councils used the ‘behaviour change wheel’ to identify what behaviour they wanted to change, deciding they wanted to encourage active travel for short journeys of around one mile (1.5 kilometres) that could be walked in roughly 20 minutes. Through focus groups in each of the six local authority areas, the councils gathered insights into the barriers which limit people undertaking active travel – by analysing people’s capabilities, opportunities and motivations.

From these insights, the project team used the ‘APEASE’ formula (affordability, practicability, effectiveness, acceptability, side effects and equity) to design a two-pronged intervention aimed at:

  • setting goals for, and encouraging planning of, active travel
  • distilling information about the positive effects of active travel.

They used an online survey to measure the levels of active travel of a control group, both before and after the ‘nudge’. They offered entry into a £200 prize draw for people who completed the follow-up survey, a tactic that was successful given that 1,095 people completing both the initial survey and the follow-up survey.

Project findings will be analysed in March 2022 and the outcomes from the trial will be published on our behavioural insights projects webpage.

Questions and answers

How do we manage messaging so that residents and communities don’t keep coming back to the council asking for funding or officer resources that we don’t have? (This tends to be the response when we have engaged our communities previously).

Stewart Phillips: When they were approached by the parish council and held conversations with them, they were asked to add more bins and carry out more collections to deal with the overflowing bins. However, when that was costed up, because it is a mixed ownership situation, this would have had a significant impact on the parish. The ‘Look Out for Our Forest’ campaign was, therefore, piloted instead, which the parish was keen to do. As a backup, the bins were kept in case the pilot was unsuccessful.

Do these approaches have different outcomes depending on the demographics of the audience? Some may be empowered, others may feel patronised. How do we mitigate this?

Madelynne Arden: It is really important to understand that it's not the same solution for all groups, and doing insight work properly and understanding the different barriers that different groups have is very important. The interventions can then be tailored for different groups. There is no one size fits all approach and doing that insight work really carefully at the beginning is important.

Given the demographic identified is the assumption that they will have a smart phone not an oversight? For some a voice note would be strange/ raise suspicion about it being a scam. How do we address that?

Stephanie Renucci: In terms of smart phone ownership, research showed that penetration was very high even amongst the less privileged parts of the population. Ensuring that the voice note was not perceived as a scam was a big point of concern for the consortium. That is why they chose to have the GP practices send out the text messages and having the personal GP direct the voice notes which is why they incorporated the SMS text from the GP with the link to the voice notes. But more insights into how much this will be a factor will be discovered further through the trial.

What are the benefits of using the ABCD over the COM-B model?

Stephanie Renucci: The challenge was twofold: to launch the trial and to upskill the consortium members some of whom had very limited knowledge of behavioural science and accessibility was very much a point of concern. 

The UNPITCHD team chose the ABCD model over other models based on two factors – it could: 

  1. enable the project team to identify the key behaviours they wanted to change
  2. form the basis of a toolkit and upskill the team in the most accessible way.

Active Travel options work in an inner city where there are alternative transport options.  How do you see these working in very rural areas where there are no safe cycle paths, long distances and no public transport?

Madelynne Arden: The Yorkshire and Humber local authority areas are very diverse and though the results from the trials are not available yet, they will be able to explore further when the data is analysed. They collected the first parts of the postcode so when the analysis is carried out they will be able to explore those rural, urban differences and other kinds of differences in relation to infrastructure as part of that work, so it's a question that they should be able to answer in the reporting phase.

How much engagement did you have with transport strategy / planning teams? Did the interventions differ between those coming from a public health background compared to those from a transport or planning background?

Nicky Knowles: At the beginning of the project, they wanted to work with colleagues across the councils’ who are already engaged on active travel. They did a lot of mapping to see what was already happening, what worked and what didn't. And also, what insights they already have around barriers and facilitators. But there was a challenge of time and capacity so they tried to bring them into a lot of the project meetings, but it was not always possible not due to a lack of will, but it was just competing priorities. If there was more time, they could have slowed it down a bit to enable those colleagues to be more involved.

Was there a trend in the type of litter that remained on the beaches, for example, empty alcohol containers, or fast-food containers? And did you encourage people to recycle and take it home once they bagged it all up together?

Stewart Phillips: They did not mix the message with the recycling message. They chose to keep it quite simple and focused on the take it home message. The priority was to not have it on the beach, blowing around entering the ocean. In the first lockdown, it was mainly shops and restaurants that were open so initially there was a lot of takeaway packaging. Also there were two key dynamics at play. The coast in the forest became much more of a destination but also there were more local visitors, and more people were exploring their locality. So it was being used consistently higher, just by local people, even before visitor numbers were added in.