If the positive differences we’ve made to our usual routines during lockdown become permanent, it could save the public sector £billions and improve the lives of millions, says CAN’s John-Paul Danon.

Driving less and walking more. Shopping local and volunteering in the community. Quitting smoking and making the effort to recycle and reuse. Accessing more services online.

These are behaviour changes public sector communications professionals have been trying to engender in residents for years. Yet the disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic flicked a switch that led to all this happening over a period of just a few weeks.

For so long, many carefully crafted, well-researched behaviour change campaign messages have barely registered in take-up statistics or budget savings as residents’ ultra-busy lives meant so many good intentions fell between the cracks. However, with pause pressed, the car on the drive and the space to think, those lives have been reconsidered and reset.

I would argue that we now have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to keep these new behaviours going. The shifts in public health and wellbeing, the positive impact on the environment, and the resultant savings that could be made to the public purse are all too important to let slide.

Shifting emphasis

With the parameters of daily life squeezed into their immediate locality, people have discovered a taste for the positives of community life. An increase in bike sales at Halfords resulted in a 23% jump in its share price, while Brompton Bikes’ sales are at Christmas levels, according the The i . The Government has announced a £2million package for councils to prioritise cycling and walking.

People have also taken matters into their own hands on health, with more than 300,000 quitting smoking due to the pandemic, according to The Guardian.

The much-publicised new neighbourliness has led to changes at more than just an individual level. Local government had to quickly adapt, cutting through the usual politics, processes and procedures to get the support needed to those who needed it.

Sustained volunteering is one of the behaviours councils have long sought to embed, especially during ten years of austerity when serious budgets cuts to services meant they needed an army of support to fill the gaps. So, when this army materialised during lockdown, councils had to find new ways to mobilise it.

In one week flat, Essex County Council set up its Essex Welfare Service to link vulnerable people with no family support to local volunteers through a call handling system via health and social care professionals. Worcestershire County Council developed Here2Help Worcestershire, an online ‘match-up’ platform to coordinate the pockets of local support that had been posted by would-be volunteers on social media.

Eddie Copeland, Director of the London Office of Technology and Innovation, argues that emergency initiatives adopted by local councils during this period could be the basis of a long-term shift from delivering and commissioning services to matching and facilitating in this UK Authority article.

Changed for good?

Paradoxically, this period when furloughed and new-be home workers had time to reflect on and alter behaviours, the public sector comms teams who would be keen to reinforce messages and get these long-hoped-for changes to stick, have been too busy communicating the Government’s daily deluge of new information, advice and directives.

However, there are time-saving ways in which local council comms teams can go back to residents with key behaviour change messages.

  1. Don’t reinvent the wheel

Although it’s great to get the creative juices flowing and come up with fresh takes on old themes, with time lacking, you could ‘rinse and repeat’ a previous campaign creative. Even if it didn’t hit the mark before, that could be because your audience wasn’t targeted effectively (more on this below).

No campaign to re-run? No problem. There is an online bank of resources which communications folk can tap into for inspiration. Developed in partnership with comms2point0 and us at CAN, it’s called COMMS:FILES and includes hundreds of examples of award-winning and measurably successful public sector campaigns, so you can get insights into what worked and what didn’t. Try a search and see what you uncover.

  1. Reach the right people

If you are only relying on your social media accounts to get messages across, you might get an impressive number of impressions, but how can you tell if your campaign was viewed by the appropriate audience? Or whether they acted on it?

You can get measurable results using your campaign messages in website and social media advertising, targeting specific demographics (like age, sex and ethnic background), geographic location and interests. This is especially effective for those groups of people often harder to reach through more traditional media and council channels.

And it means your campaign can be monitored and tweaked – to determine which messages, creatives and channels are working best – and you get a detailed breakdown of the audience reached and click-through rates at the end.

  1. Give them a nudge

Behavioural science tells us that changing behaviour is hard as most people get locked into habits. Even when a new behaviour has started – as many of these positive lockdown changes now have – it is notoriously hard to sustain for the long-term. It is said to take from 28 days to three months to make it in any way self-sustaining.

‘Nudge’ theory means using reminder techniques to make sure people go from ‘interested’ to taking the next step. And digital advertising helps with this too. It’s possible to build an initial ‘qualified’ audience (those who have clicked on an ad) and retarget them with further messages that keep reminding them to take action. It’s something that worked well for us on last year’s Stop Smoking London campaign (case study here).

There’s a thorough explanation of how nudge theory it could work for council campaigns – including models to use – from subject specialist Dominic Ridley-Moy in this article.

Campaigns to go

At CAN we have built a range of behaviour change campaigns for local councils and other public sector bodies and have a store of insights to share on what works and what doesn’t.

We can build what we’re calling #Changed4Good campaigns swiftly from existing research, digital tools and readymade creatives on many of the themes that have come out of lockdown – tailored to your own locality and communities:

You could also consider the potential of people becoming more used to accessing services online, to make savings through managing demand and channel shift, and to widen the sphere of local democracy.

Let’s come out of this situation with the sort of significant changes in behaviour that will protect services and improve lives for many decades to come.

Get in touch for a chat if we can help.