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By Karen Spehr MAPS and Robert Curnow MAPS
Directors, Community Change Pty Ltd

Increasingly, government departments are approaching psychologists with requests for assistance to help change community behaviour. There is a growing awareness amongst those delivering environmental programs designed to address climate change that their initiatives must demonstrate measurable improvements in behaviour, particularly when program expenditure is subject to such public scrutiny.

This article outlines a consultancy conducted for the Victorian Government to develop a ‘framework' to drive behaviour change in community water consumption. A number of valuable lessons were highlighted over the course of the project and although not necessarily new to us after 20 years of work in the field, they nevertheless distilled some practical truths which may assist other psychologists delivering programs to address climate change.

The project

The project was led by the Department of Sustainability and Environment and communication managers from Melbourne's four water businesses, working cooperatively to reduce community water consumption as part of the Our Water Our Future (OWOF) campaign. Our company was engaged to develop a framework to drive and measure behaviour change and facilitate decision making in a suite of activities, including industry-based water saving initiatives in garden centres and schools. The framework was to guide the establishment of new programs but needed to apply to existing programs, as yet unevaluated (and therefore unproven) from a behavioural perspective.

The resulting eight-part OWOF Behaviour Change Framework (BCF) was designed following consultation with stakeholders in the water industry. Social marketing and behavioural principles were used to understand target group behaviour, identify clear behaviour-related objectives, and design programs and evaluation processes directed by both prior and action research outcomes, with implementation continuously modified by monitoring and evaluation. The BCF was implemented using an action learning partnership with our first ‘lesson' occurring early in this process.

Lesson 1: When working for the environment, remember the proverb ‘physician heal thyself’

Step 1 of the BCF observed that, with the best of intentions, many so-called ‘education' initiatives can degenerate into a group of ‘us' (the educated) trying to exhort ‘them' (the uneducated) to change, setting up added resistance.

To this end, in the ‘training' phase of the framework, we (both client and psychologist) examined our own water use behaviour in the home and workplace. If we couldn't make the changes we were asking for, then what sort of impact could we realistically have? And how effective a change agent would OWOF really be if its stakeholders' buildings, work practices and employees weren't demonstrating its environmental goals? Among our project group, the organisational hurdles to making internal changes were large and many challenges at the personal level proved more problematic than they first seemed. From a personal viewpoint, the often delayed installation of solar panels and water tanks in our office suddenly became an embarrassing top priority.

In working to facilitate environmental behaviour change, it is essential to be seen to practise what you preach, or risk your credibility. It is also crucial to help project stakeholders do the same.

Lesson 2: Adjust to the reality of organisational constraints in applying the scientist-practitioner model

Unexpectedly, the use of the scientist-practitioner model was not a familiar approach for our non-psychologist ‘behaviour change' managers. Concepts basic to the BCF, such as developing behavioural objectives against which to measure progress, proved to be unexpectedly challenging as it became quickly evident that programs with the espoused aim of changing behaviour were actually knowledge or attitudes-based initiatives (often with an over reliance on focus groups to direct decision making). Furthermore, there were no stakeholder plans for programs already in the implementation and political pipeline to be discontinued, so expectations about likely achievements in behaviour change needed to be heavily managed.

However by not insisting on a purist approach we were able to more effectively influence subsequent decision making. For example, a proposed program where plumbers were to act as point-of-sale change agents to increase water leak checks and install water saving devices, used preliminary BCF research to identify plumbers' perceptions and actual behaviour on site and also householder perceptions of benefits, e.g., "Plumbers could help me act on something I've been thinking about for a while" (benefit) and "Plumbers are just trying to sell me something" (barrier). The most salient barrier to the proposal though, turned out to be the industry shortage of skilled plumbers where the added ‘work' of influencing water saving was seen by plumbers as impractical and undesirable in view of workload constraints. OWOF stakeholders had therefore tested their assumptions about the ease with which plumbers could provide point-of-sale influence and had ‘hard' data to modify the ‘good idea'. Often unwieldy, this process did yield long-term benefits in skills acquisition among stakeholders, who now had first-hand experience in the pitfalls of succumbing to the temptation to forge ahead without testing ideas first.

Lesson 3: Don’t underestimate the value of providing and receiving mentoring from clients

From project inception there was a need for our clients to mentor us in acquiring water industry knowledge not covered in our review of many industry publications and stakeholder interviews. Often there was basic information to learn, e.g., that only .01 per cent of the world's water is stored in fresh and saltwater lakes and rivers! Client mentoring was also key to improving our understanding of organisational dynamics and their impact on behaviour change efforts. Change strategies obvious from a psychological point of view for instance, were sometimes seen as too radical or far too expensive, e.g., installing in-home smart water meters.

Mutual mentoring meant that the application of the BCF was experienced as a genuine partnership, with shared benefits including sustained motivation and effective ongoing program refinement and delivery. A number of mentoring partnerships have continued beyond the project in programs such as Water Saving Garden Centres and Water Learn It Live It.

Lesson 4: Effective facilitation of behaviour change can be undermined by factors outside your control

Despite the existence of detailed project briefs outlining both consultant and client roles and responsibilities, various factors outside our control impinged on the effective facilitation of the BCF - in particular, cross-organisation coordination of behaviour change efforts and staff turnover.

The immense breadth of behaviour change efforts in the environment requires a coordinated approach across government, business and the wider community. During the critical stages of water shortages and associated restrictions the coordination of behaviour change programs could have been better streamlined, with the potentially powerful interactive impact of ‘top down' legislation and ‘bottom up' community action able to be more fully exploited. Implementation of initiatives associated with well developed strategic plans, e.g., the Victorian Government White Paper¹, are increasingly benefiting from a dedicated structure for supporting behaviour change that is able to reach across departments and coordinate efforts. Potentially, a lack of coordination can lead to different initiatives that are working towards the same goal having unintentional detrimental effects.

Also outside of our control were various staff changes which occurred during implementation of the BCF (in four years, 12 program or communication managers had been headhunted or had moved on). The action learning approach used to transfer BCF skills to staff and stakeholders often improved their capacity to facilitate behaviour change beyond the confines of the BCF project, making them valuable assets for other project teams. Although this had a direct impact on BCF implementation, the rate at which new staff adopted evidenced-based behaviour change approaches to complex issues was impressive. The positive nature of client-psychologist partnerships was key to dealing with the impact of these adjustments.

"... the communicator must be aware of the psychological messages carried by other ongoing demand management policies. For example, many have saved water through ‘responsibility' created by campaigns during the drought only to be apparently punished by price rises shortly afterward. Compliance on future occasions may be less likely."
Syme et al (2000), p564.  


¹Our Water Our Future: Securing Our Water Future Together (2004). Victorian Government White Paper.


Looking back on our OWOF project ‘lessons', the common thread was the necessity for all participants to work as team members, in relationships which often transcended various organisational and practical limitations and where we all felt comfortable enough to share knowledge and skills with uses far beyond the project itself.

For psychologists to become effectively involved in behaviour change, other professionals and potential clients need to understand how psychologist partnerships would benefit in practice. (Consider the evaluation outcomes of water savings achieved by a retro-fit of showerheads, tap flow regulators, toilet cistern flush arrestors and leak repair done in 200,000(!) NSW homes, with a sample of 17,000 showing significant and sustained water savings compared to matched controls). The potential for psychologists to contribute to such a program by improving uptake and cost effectiveness has yet to be exploited. We can promote this involvement by first understanding the numerous achievements and contributions of other professions and groups working in the environment, forging partnerships, and continuing to effect change in our own homes, workplaces and neighbourhoods.

Community Change is a social research company specialising in behaviour change in the environment. The OWOF Behaviour Change Framework can be viewed at www.communitychange.com.au.  

The authors can be contacted on karen@communitychange.com.au or rob@communitychange.com.au.


Syme, G.J., Nancarrow, B.E., & Seligman, C. (2000). The Evaluation of Information Campaigns to Promote Voluntary Household Water Conservation. Evaluation Review, 24(6), 539-578.