The recent appointment of former Labour Minster Alan Milburn to be an independent expert reviewer on government progress over social mobility is welcome as it creates the opportunity to build on the report he published under the previous government. Social mobility is an inter-generational issue that requires long-term commitment from governments, so the greater the consensus the more likelihood of some change occurring.

At the same time it also needs to be recognised that the financial situation means it will be more difficult to deliver expensive changes at least in the short-term, whatever the level of consensus.

Is there another approach that could be piloted as part of the review into this?

Behaviour Change theory often stresses the importance of the need to address issues around both personal “ability” and “motivation”. Naturally the focus in public policy in the last century or more has been on providing support to help people develop their “ability” (eg universal education) and of course there may be more that still needs to be done in this field as books such as the Spirit Level would argue. The Capabilities Approach of Amartya Sen also quite naturally focuses on tackling the inequalities around how the state or society contributes to ability.

However increasingly the other half of the behaviour change equation, “motivation”, is moving out of a past cul-de-sac of American business management and self-help books and is beginning to be recognised as a collective action problem for society to address. The argument is quite simple, and makes a practical use of the current understanding of how the brain works and the two independent systems within it: the emotional side and the rational reflective or conscious system. If we just invest in supporting abilities we do much to support the part of us that is the rational, however we then do not address the issues around our emotional selves.

Behaviour Change campaigns in areas like public health and the environment already recognise the importance of addressing both aspects of human behaviour.  However in other areas of public policy there is still the danger that however much we invest in improving “ability”, if we do not address the challenge of demotivation then the gap in a range of inequalities (from health to social mobility) could continue to widen.

Much of the early debate in this field has been around the Happiness agenda of Richard Layard, which has already led to much more resources being invested in support for talking therapies in mental health provision. Government’s have also increased the number of “personal advisors” and advocates in a number of fields from education to employment, but there has been no joined up approach to this across Government. The current financial situation may hold back further significant development here for the next few years.

How might one develop new approaches to supporting social mobility in the short-term?

One approach for future pilots might be to draw from the specific field of social marketing within behaviour change. Before one can develop new proposals for intervention, there needs to be a gathering of insight using newer forms of segmentation that give a greater understanding of levels of motivation and self-efficacy within the community. Only then can more targeted interventions be delivered to the right people, to enable motivations to be supported that then make the important continuing investment into developing ability all the more effective.

Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company

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