Systems Change vs. Behaviour Change (part two)

Lizzy Robinson is a Senior Program Manager and the Afghanistan portfolio lead at MAGENTA, a social and behavioural change research and communications firm.

Josiane Smith manages Strategic Partnerships and Growth at the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), a global, cross-sector network of institutions and individuals committed to social and systems change.

Josiane and Lizzy connected in Amman over their mutual fascination with social development, behaviour change and the bigger forces in society that help or hinder progress. Their conversation continues here:

The role of influence in social change

Josiane: Instead of asking “what is our impact?”, we’ve begun asking “what change do we want to see?” and “what signals should we be looking for that tell us change is happening?”

Over our eleven years, we’ve helped universities to rethink their purpose through social labs, co-creation methodologies, and consortiums which bridge research and practice; we’re continuously shifting the dial on the way foundations operate through our funders’ retreats and reports; we’ve exposed corporations to social R&D, business for good practices, and social innovation ecosystems; and we’ve built capacity in places that have a real, broad desire for something to change. 

Lizzie: It sounds like SIX’s impact could be described also in terms of influence.

Josiane: Yes! We’d definitely use that term. SIX is seeking to influence social change through institutions and structures, and to influence institutions through individuals. How do you think that differs from MAGENTA’s way of using influence?

Lizzie: Similar to SIX, we do use influence to create social change. For us, this could mean influencing people at the level of individuals and their communities, as well as engaging in advocacy and supporting communities in their advocacy. We use a lot of principles from behavioural science that point to how much people—and their behaviours—are influenced by other people around them and by the information available to them. At the same time, we make sure our approach is aligned with government priorities and strategies to support national goals.

Josiane: How does that look in practice in the programmes you design? 

Lizzie: For example, people receive a lot of messages about what are socially-accepted and desirable behaviours through mass media and other forms of communication. We encourage change by reaching people with specific messages, shared through channels that people trust and will listen to. Sometimes this can be through TV shows or social media, but other times this is through person to person communication. And we spend a lot of time thinking about how to tailor messages to the individual—in terms of gender, background, culture, whether they live in an urban or rural area—so that the messages will have the most impact.

Josiane: Our choices are massively affected by the choices and opinions of others.

Lizzie: At the end of the day, human beings are social animals and we look at what other people do in order to decide what we should do. We care about what other people will think about our behaviour. 

Influencing individual behaviours and social norms

Josiane: Can you give an example of how you try to influence individual behaviours and social norms in your work?

Lizzie: Yes, certainly. So in one project we did in Afghanistan, we were trying to encourage people to stop asking for and paying petty bribes. Corruption is a massive problem in Afghanistan, and these small bribes really add up to create huge economic and social problems. We did a desk review and then two formative research studies (here and here) to try to better understand why service providers in the government ask for bribes, and why citizens are willing to pay bribes.

Josiane: And what did you find?

Lizzie: Well, we found that just about all the participants in the research stated in very strong terms that they knew corruption was wrong–both morally and from an Islamic perspective–and they knew the damaging effects it was having on their country and community. But bribery and corruption of course continued. 

Josiane: It’s interesting how the work you do with individuals moved quickly up to the level of social and community norms in terms of what was seen as socially acceptable behaviour.

Lizzie: Yeah, exactly. And the existence of social norms that made corruption acceptable made it hard to get people to stop, even though individuals objectively knew it was wrong. There was even one case of a young woman who refused to pay a bribe to a government service provider, and as a result wasn’t able to finish her paperwork. When she went back home, her family criticized her for not just paying the bribe to get it done, and told her to go back to the office and this time pay the bribe.

Josiane: So individuals who wanted to change were almost penalised for doing so. 

Lizzie: Right – and this “punishment” of being stigmatized in your community can be a hard barrier to overcome when we’re trying to encourage behaviour change. But we actually prefer to work on encouraging good behaviours, rather than punishing bad ones—people like to be told what they’re doing right, not what they’re doing wrong!

Josiane: I can imagine that behaviour change programming can be quite successful at an individual level, but then broader structures are at work which completely hinder or even reverse the progress being made.

Lizzie: Oh yes! We often run into the issue that some of the barriers people face when trying to make better choices and engaging in better behaviours are barriers at the structural level—and there’s only so much that we can do as a social and behavioural change organization to address those barriers.

The tensions between individuals and structures

Josiane: How did tensions between individuals and structures show up in your Afghanistan programme?  

Lizzie: For instance, we looked at whether people reported corruption, and found that they almost never did, in part because they knew the government wouldn’t follow-up on the complaint. So, on the one hand you do have barriers related to social norms and attitudes about corruption—these are things we as MAGENTA can address—but you also have barriers related to policies and government systems. While we do work alongside government and their partners to make sure our work supports their priorities, policy change and other structural barriers need to be addressed in full as well, in tandem with individual leval and community level factors. 

Josiane: I definitely hear you on the struggle to influence behaviours without addressing barriers at the structural level. Both approaches should probably happen in tandem.

Lizzie: I agree – and I’d also say that both approaches will work better when also paired with the other. How might this dual-approach look like in practice?

Josiane: The way we sometimes describe my area of work within SIX is ‘movement-building’ and that’s where our approaches really work well together.

Lizzy: That’s a good way to describe it. It’s pretty rare though to find one organisation that will tackle the problem from both ends, so to speak—trying to change both behaviours and more structural things, like policies, synergistically. Why do you think that is?

Josiane: Well on the programme design side, it’s not necessarily intuitive work and extremely rare to get funding to spark change at a systemic level – meaning at a micro and macro level, with individuals and with institutions. Similarly, on the donors’ side, although systems thinking, including approaches from behavioural science, might make sense as an approach, it’s a slow and messy process and can be really difficult to measure or account for systemic changes along the way.

Bringing top-down and bottom-up approaches together

Lizzy: So how have you addressed that in your work?

Josiane: We’ve tried to get around that by gathering multiple perspectives which help us to grasp, as soon as possible, different parts of complex systems. We rely a lot on our social capital / network intelligence to do this properly so we design programmes around co-creation, exchange and open participation. 

Lizzie: That sounds very similar to how we approach our work, actually. What do think are some other commonalities between SIX’s approach to change, and MAGENTA’s?

Josiane: Hmm.. We are both people-led, needs-led and relationships-led; the art of listening and picking up on subtexts are important to both of us in terms of how we make sense of change. I suppose both MAGENTA and SIX would also probably describe power as the ability to influence something, and both of our organisations seek to disturb power, shift norms and influence positive change. The ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of change is definitely a crucial part of the picture, as is the importance of trust and taking time to understand contexts before diving into them.

Lizzie: I’d love to explore how MAGENTA might learn from SIX how to decentralise ourselves in the process of making change happen. Facilitating change with a variety of stakeholders is a really important part of this work, and I bet SIX has a lot of strategies for how to do that effectively.

Josiane: Likewise, I’d like to see how can SIX learn from MAGENTA about how to create a city-wide festival or a social innovation taskforce – the conversations, connections and actions from which last long after the event or the training is done? How can we work with a behaviour change consultancy to ‘land’ high-level work into the minds and hearts of stakeholders to make the kind of work we do more effective

Lizzy: There are so many ways we could collaborate on this. From our side it would be great to work with SIX to bring a variety of institutions and actors on different levels of the system into the conversation about behaviour change. We could co-design a programme that includes both of our approaches around behavioural change and more structural change, so that each supports the other to create a more holistic approach to social change. Do you know people who might be interested in continuing this conversation?

Josiane: Absolutely – let’s jump on another zoom call!

This was Part Two of a Two-Part Series which explores different approaches to tackling social issues in development work and the public sector at the level of individuals, communities and systems. The first article can be found here.

You can tweet the authors @JosianeSmith and @MagentaSBCC.