The concept of “push” can lead to social and economic change in India – analysis
Encouraging responsible individual behavior to achieve collective well-being through public policies is not new to governments. During the crisis caused by coronavirus disease (Covid-19), the debate on what constitutes the field of personal choice versus collective responsibility is evolving faster than ever. Governments are using behavior change and “push” theory to tackle countless development and governance challenges.
The idea gained momentum after the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) incorporated it by establishing “push” units. In India, behavior change has been included in programs such as the Swachh Bharat Mission, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojna and Prime Minister Ujjwala Yojana. The government’s expert group, NITI Aayog, also plans to establish a formal push unit.
The Covid-19 pandemic is unique in many ways: There are different levels of risk for different age groups; there is an omnipresent threat to different socioeconomic groups; and there is a need for impositions at the individual level by the government. These three are testing two vital elements of human behavior. First, personal risk-seeking behaviors, and second, the degree to which an individual behaves for the benefit of society.
The critical challenge here is to change the situation to implement reforms in the theory of behavior change that until now were difficult. For example, now is the time to reinforce one of the key messages of the Swachh Bharat Mission: encourage citizens to wash their hands regularly. Children can become advocates of the most hygienic behavior in their families. The “20 seconds” handwashing rule, supplemented by a “turn off the tap” message, can drive water use optimization behavior.
Similarly, to maintain social distance, the idea of using toilets built under the mission can be reiterated. In urban areas, the possibility of delays in picking up trash at the door can be used to bring home to the point that there is an urgent need to improve waste management and begin segregation at home. A “my neighborhood, my hygiene” campaign can push urban citizens to take care of their localities in a sustainable way.
On the economic front, the learnings of “giving up the LPG subsidy” can be used to change the way such programs work. The idea of market-based utility pricing can be put to the test in Indian Railways’ distribution companies and passenger services by eliminating populist cross-subsidies. A push to pay taxes in a timely and legitimate manner this year may set a new benchmark for compliance, as people are more willing to contribute despite their financial difficulties.
As communities work closely with local health care cadres, messages focused on reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health can improve health seeking attitudes. With people experiencing stress and anxiety, authorities can encourage them to observe their lifestyles holistically by practicing the AYUSH National Mission wellness guidelines.
With nurses and doctors emerging as heroes in the fight against the coronavirus, a renewed campaign by Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, highlighting the critical role of women in the country’s success can improve gender outcomes. Similarly, systematic behavior change can be accomplished to stop the flow of misinformation through social media by pushing citizens to think about the accuracy of the information before taking any action. With online governments, many procedures can be removed or digitized with minimal resistance from both employees and citizens.
This is also an opportune time to promote digital payments. Given the changing role of police officers, from law enforcement officers to social partners, a systematic change in their public perception can improve civic safety outcomes. With the voluntary help of young people to essential and old staples, the concept of community-run geriatric care can also be promoted.
Such top-down measures complemented by bottom-up initiatives can ensure that change becomes permanent. In this context, the role of panchayati raj institutions becomes critical. Integrating behavior change into gram panchayat development plans may be a step in the direction of harnessing these core capabilities.
However, we must consider the consequences of “soft paternalism” and typical impediments such as “dragons of inaction” and “behavioral fatigue” when trying to use the theory of behavior change. The idea of pushing and behaving public policies with caution must be used.
If used correctly and properly executed, it has the potential to dramatically alter the level of trust among citizens, thereby changing the nature of the “government-citizen” relationship forever. It can improve citizenship, improve democratic outcomes, and improve the efficiency of public services in the long term.
Sanyukta Samaddar is an adviser, and Sumitra K. and Anand Trivedi are leaders and specialists in monitoring and evaluation, (WHERE?) Respectively.
The opinions expressed are personal.