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Big Brother wants to change the way you live

Posted on 23 August 2012

Big Brother wants to change the way you live

A government briefing note details its latest thinking on how
to make people save more energy, especially through the Green Deal and
smart meters.

The government wants to find ways to make you switch off lights and
unused appliances, wear different clothing according to the weather
outside, and drive more efficiently.

The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) has issued Energy Use Behaviour Change,
a summary of research on the array of factors, policies, campaigns,
carrots and sticks that can influence people's behaviour, with
particular reference to the Green Deal and the smart meters programme.

It provides a fascinating insight into official thinking on how the
public can be manipulated to save energy. Is this the nanny state? A
totalitarian tendency? Or the correct approach of a concerned
administration? Perhaps the answer depends on your ideological

The problem

A central scenario from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)
requires homes to save 98 mega-tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2) in the year 2030.
That is 34% of the total required reduction from 2010 levels.

This depends upon consumers choosing to insulate 90% of lofts, 90% of
cavity walls and 45% of solid walls, not to mention the uptake of more
efficient appliances, adoption of low carbon technologies such as heat
pumps, and changes in the way that they use energy.

The problem is that people don't always behave rationally, or listen to what politicians say.

The Ladder of Interventions

So, like many a social engineering government in the past, the
Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has enlisted the help of
models from sociology and psychology. It has picked Social Practice
Theory (SPT), which considers energy-using behaviours such as cooking,
showering and travelling to work as phenomena that need to be changed
at the societal level.

And to understand psychology it has chosen the Triandis model, which
splits behaviour into different components such as attitudes, emotions,
habits and context.

From this, it has generated what it calls a 'ladder of
interventions', that classifies interventions according to how severe
they are. For example, here's a list of possible ways to encourage
people to use energy saving light bulbs:


Eliminate choice: prevent the use of conventional, inefficient light bulbs
Restrict choice: stop selling conventional light bulbs (current policy).

Fiscal measures

Dincentives: increase tax on conventional light bulbs
Incentives: reduce tax or subsidise energy saving light bulbs.

Non-regulatory and non-fiscal measures

Offer a reward, e.g. entry into a prize draw, for buying energy saving light bulbs
Persuade people that improving energy efficiency is important and
that energy saving light bulbs help save energy whilst reducing bills
Supply energy saving light bulbs in new light fittings and lamps
Make energy saving light bulbs the most prominent type at the point of sale
Provide information to show how many people are buying energy saving light bulbs
Explain how energy saving light bulbs work and how they save energy
Do nothing, or monitor the current situation by tracking sales in different types of light bulb.

A good example of a successful regulatory measure is the 2005 rule
that all new gas central‐heating boilers must be efficient condensing
boilers. This led to condensing (including combi-condensing) boilers
increasing in prevalence, from 10% in 2005 to 50% in 2009. The cashback
scheme for old boilers was a further fiscal measure which led even more
people to trade up to condensing boilers.

The POST note admits the failure of past government campaigns like
'Are you doing your bit?' and 'Act on CO2', because it has been realised
that there is no evidence that providing information at a population
level will lead to behaviour change.

Nudging the Green Deal

The POST note goes on to say that "the success of the [Green Deal]
depends on the trust of consumers in suppliers. However, trust in energy
companies is low and more work will be needed to build trust and drive
demand for Green Deal energy efficiency measures".

How will this be done? The civil servants come down in favour of giving us 'nudges'.

A nudge is a change to "any aspect of the context in which people
make decisions that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way,
without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic
incentives". An example is removing chocolate from the till point in a
supermarket; banning chocolate or significantly raising its price is not
a nudge.

Here's where smart meters come in; they are a change in the context.
The note says: "The roll-out of smart meters with customer displays from
2014 will offer opportunities to nudge consumers to reduce their energy
use. The information that they provide could be utilised to create
nudges that increase the prominence of energy use whilst encouraging a
reduction in consumption".

It adds that trials have shown reductions in electricity consumption
of 3% to 19%, "though an average of 5% is realistic for larger-scale
trials that include uninterested customers".

DECC, however, is conservatively projecting annual reductions of 2.8% in electricity use and 0.5% to 2% in gas use.

Project Mindspace

What else is going on in government to try and make us change into model citizens? The most bizarre-sounding is 'MINDSPACE', a framework technique used within the Behavioural Insights Team that is part of the Cabinet Office.

It was developed by the Institute for Government in collaboration
with the Cabinet Office and builds on a checklist used by the Department
for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) called the 4 Es
(enable, engage, exemplify and encourage).

The Behavioural Insights Team has organised a series of seminars
across Whitehall to inform senior policy makers, including senior civil
servants and ministers, on using MINDSPACE.

DECC has it own Customer Insight Team, which has recently run a
training programme for staff based on social practice theory, the
Triandis model and MINDSPACE.

Clearly, they have ways of making us change. Whether we'll change in the way they want remains to be seen.