Westco - Blog images (5)-3


Within the public sector, we’re often guilty of being too wedded to systems of logic, convention, and codified structure for fear of making a costly mistake. But this doesn’t necessarily mean our decisions are any the better for it. Sometimes, there’s a magic that lies behind supplementing conventional economic theory and thinking beyond our realm of the normal to find ‘alchemy’ in ideas and creatives.  


From simply asking nicely, to how we can use forced shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic to introduce change, here are our top 10 takeaways for changing behaviours in public service from a webinar with Rory Sutherland. 


Creativity and problem solving


1. Set-up a creative board for a holistic view of problem solving 

Set up a creative board that visualises not just the problem that you need to solve, but all the wider solutions and approaches that you can use to tackle it. Through this, you get a much wider view of possible resolutions that include elements such as psychology and human behaviour alongside the more logical approaches that come from an economic or legal perspective. 


2. Give people small, manageable options to start changing their behaviour

Human behaviour is often dictated by risk factor, meaning that people are much less likely to make major, transformational decisions. Rather, people prefer to make smaller decisions that gradually effect change. To tackle the climate emergency, councils can provide people with a selection of options for taking action, like in the TV show Countdown – ask them to choose three small steps and perhaps one major one. Just get them started towards the course of change. 


3. Bring creatives into the room

Historically, governments have largely relied on a narrow economic and legalistic view of the world. This means that they tend to provide solutions to problems that follow narrowly (and sometimes incorrectly) defined economic models. Some solutions may therefore be counter intuitive. To counter this, you need to include creatives in the room to help balance out the perspectives and offer left-of-field, ‘out the box’ thinking for a more rounded solution.  


Data and decision-making


4. Beware of data!

Beware the use of big data without fully understanding what it’s telling you. Bad maths is worse than no maths, and can ultimately lead you to really poor judgement. Any use of data needs to be understood fully and contextually before informing a decision that involves people. 


5. Don’t be defensive

Local government may be susceptible to defensive decision-making – because of its political nature, local government can make decisions based on the option that has the least risk of going wrong . This means that government rarely uses new innovative approaches to things, instead relying on the same tried and tested theory with largely the same risk averse outcomes (MiniMax in Game Theory). Be bolder and more innovative with decision-making. 


6. Nothing need be permanent

Does legislation always have to be designed to be permanent? Why not try temporary ideas with communities? Test them, shape them, improve them, and learn what works best.  


Consequences, shocks, and societal shifts


7. Introduce models that gradually reap benefits

Introducing climate friendly actions, such as car free days, are likely to create unforeseen positive consequences, such as people speaking to their neighbours more, shopping at more local businesses while walking, or businesses themselves offering incentives for not using your car. However, in order to make them viable, they need to be introduced slowly – for example, four car free days a year across three years – by the end of which, people will begin to look forward to these car free days without realising, given they are continually adapting and producing more positive consequences. 


8. Learn from temporary forced shocks

Temporary, forced, and simultaneous shocks (pandemics, wars, disasters) can create long lasting societal shifts – just look at women in the workplace during the Second World War. So how can we use them as a learning curve? Can we use them to implement changes such as car free days that help change behaviour longer term? 


9. Leave problems of coordination to central government

Bigger behaviour change elements need to be coordinated by the government. For example, should the government have a system of lockers for use for online shopping and local commerce? This would help with needless delivery journeys, help local businesses, and change how people shop. 


10. Simply put, government should be more helpful 

Government needs to use substantial insight and power to be genuinely helpful. Don’t just assume that people respond to being bossed about or bribed – sometimes just asking nicely and encouraging small positive steps towards change can be more beneficial. Equally, this works internally too – what has government learned from its procurement exercises and how can that experience be shared for a collective goal? 



Rory Sutherland is the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK and the founder of the behavioural science practice. Rory recently authored ‘Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don’t Make Sense’ in which he explores the fine balance between using only economic theory and embracing the irrational to create some of the most powerful ideas. Westco held a webinar with Rory in 2021 to explore the ways in which the public sector can embrace this approach to effectively change behaviours. Watch the full webinar here.








Within the public sector, we’re often guilty of being too wedded to systems of logic, convention, and codified structure for fear of making a costly mistake.


If you would like to get in touch, use our nifty form below.

Get in Touch


Contact Us