Behavioural economics and policy design for Swachh Bharat

Singapore recycles its water, including sewage water. When they realised they are a water deficient country, and that Malaysia was ever increasing the price of water given to Singapore, they had to find innovative ways of solving the issue. They thought of recycling water, including sewage water. There was a lot of debate on using recycled sewage water for drinking , not only amongst the laymen, but also amongst the scientists. The policy makers were sure that recycled water was safe and this solution had to be promoted. Over-information was not the solution – however much they clarified about its safety, counter opinions continued to surface. They realised that the real reason for public opinion against recycled water was disgust – the ‘yuck factor’; and they addressed precisely the same. On their National day, with full attention of the country and the world, the Prime Minister of Sungapore and his entire team drank recycled water to dispel doubts about its safety ! That was the turning point for people accepting recycled water.
 (Above slide from Prof Leong Ching, LKY School’s presentation; NeWater refers to recycled sewage water)
In India too, there are a lot of myths about having a toilet close to home – it would smell, it is dirty, it would overflow, how will we empty it etc. Robert Chambers had suggested a few months back that these myths can be dispelled if a VVIP in India were to empty the latrine pit ( that has been in use for many years to render excreta safe) and hold the converted manure in his hands. Having seen what Singapore authorities did with respect to dispelling the ‘yuck factor’ around recycled water, time for this idea may be ripe !
Singapore authorities also zoomed in on the fact that complex decisions that involve behavioural change cannot be determined by simplistic data choices but may require a detailed narrative analysis. For example, the question of recycled water is not just about what percentage of people accept it. It is also about a host of other factors that can be described as – Singaporeans generally want self-sufficiency in water, recycled water is cost-effective and innovative way for self sufficiency, it is important for global security etc. – seen in the context of all these, the ‘yuck factor’ gets diluted.
 (Narrative analysis in terms of behavioural analysis of use of recycled sewage water for drinking; slide taken from Prof Leong Ching, LKY School’s presentation)
Similarly, in the context of Swachh Bharat also, the question whether people prefer to go out for defecation is the wrong question, and does not describe the entire gamut of programme. Leaders and implementers of the programme must expand the narrative analysis of Swachh Bharat to – sanitation is closely linked with diarrhoea and child morbidity and mortality, India cannot afford to have thousands of her children die due to preventable illnesses like diarrhoea, cleanliness and hygiene contribute to health etc. This broad narrative analysis will put Swachh Bharat in comprehensive behavioural analysis, much beyond data on few parameters.
Policy design for any public issue necessitates appropriate problem identification in the first place.  For Swachh Bharat, the problem is open defecation and littering/ stagnant water. The rest of the things – lack of capacity, lack of desire, poor supply, lack of toilets, lack of resources, habit – can be causes; but not the main problem. So while we may get deeper into the causes, and sift and prioritise them, and address them, we cannot lose focus on what the original problem is. By corollary, our outcomes have to be necessarily measured by how well the problem is addressednot how well the causes are addressed.
Focus on ‘authorising environment’ and ‘managerial capacity’: The strategic triangle of public policy has three dimensions – ‘public value’, ‘authorising environment’ and ‘managerial capacity’. The ‘public value’ is drawn from appropriate outcomes and is obvious. The ‘authorising environment’ refers to adequate flow of authority and support from say, political masters. While it is usually taken for granted, and indeed at the national level, for Swachh Bharat, this is presently unprecedented, it may be useful to revaluate the same at the State/ district level and to continue to influence actors who are important and can significantly influence the programme . A talisman on A plus for this parameter can be, if the most important stakeholders such as the Chief Minister, for e.g., make a mention of Swachh Bharat on priority in their public speeches, and review it regularly with the Collectors. The third dimension, ‘managerial capacity’ is the single biggest challenge for Swachh Bharat and must remain top priority for States and districts – strengthening their teams and providing them requisite skills.
Who are our stakeholders? Shanmuga, CEO, Zilla Panchayat Harda, Madhya Pradesh rightly remarked that all citizens of Harda were their stakeholders for Swachh Harda ! At a managerial level, however, it may be important to categorise and list out all the stakeholders – so that no one is ignored/left out ( all hands on deck !) and so that communication strategies specific to stakeholders can be drawn-out. Since we have to reach out to many, small two-minute videos, carrying appropriate message may do the trick ! It is also important that information is pictorial, and one that people relate to closely. A hoarding of ‘pair of eyes’ ( stern eyes more effective) has been found to effectively deter a wrong-doer (?open-defecator).
Given the scale of problem, ‘smart’ solutions may have to be innovated. How does less effort yield greater result ? In Singapore, they adapted flush technology that automatically reduced water usage by 1/3rd. The water bills that go in Singapore contains a simple line – ” The average bill in your locality is …”, prompting those with higher bills to reduce their water usage ! How do we ‘frame’ and ‘brand’ Swachh Bharat, so that it ‘nudges’ people to be a part of it, so that having a ‘toilet’ becomes a ‘social norm’. Subsidies have not been found to be particularly effective in influencing behaviours – ‘nudges’ can do the trick! The books ‘Nudge’ by Richard Thaler or ‘Nudge, Nudge, Think, Think’ by Peter John explain the power of nudging, and it is for all the implementers to apply these principles smartly in the programme.
Participation in programme has to be made easier through administrative and financial simplification. Having a toilet should be the ‘default’ option ! Our housing scheme – Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana – should have had an in-built provision for a toilet; alas Rural Development Department missed this important opportunity! There should be lower barriers to participation, with measures such as pre- filled forms, easy certificates/applications (wherever required) and supply-chain facilitation. The talisman is to keep oneself in the shoes of a villager, and then simplify the whole process. While giving choices is an important element of community centricity and must be continued, one may be cautious that there is no ‘choice overload’. In this context, circular by Chhattisgarh Government to promote twin pit latrine, and bar septic tank may be a good measure to nudge towards the right choice, and also escape various practical problems that beset a septic tank.
How do we effectively ‘anchor’ ODF ( open defecation free) status, and make it aspirational? Villagers from other villages may be taken on exposure visit to ideal  ODF villages, so that they feel it is possible. Natural leaders and sarpanches from villages who have made their villages ODF can be made to address their peers and decorated as Swachh Bharat ambassadors. The issue will have to be framed in a mental model that he can relate to easily such as stories of local champions who have done it.
The endowment effect in behavioural economics says that one values what one has more than what one does not have. Given this, he is likely to be influenced more by discussion on health of his child, or expenditure on health, or by appeal to his emotional brain; than by discussion on ‘toilets’ ! One is more averse to loss than to gain – again, this implies loss of health may be a more powerful behavioural change nudge than gain of an asset (toilet)!
What is the right timing for a person to spend on toilet ? Or occasion, so that he does it sooner rather than later ? For donation, it was found that donors could be nudged into donation when they were asked to donate a part of their annual income increase, than from their regular income. Can we then also nudge communities to spend when they typically have higher cash in hand, say after a harvest. Other occasions can also be used to ‘promote’ ODF events – such as Chhattisgarh recently used the pre-monsoon period to appeal to people to have ‘Sughar baarish’ – ‘clean rain’ – appealing to their sensitivity to difficulty in open defecation during rains and exhorting them to change that this monsoon by building toilets before the rains. These kind of promotions are used widely in the private sector – say ‘best buy’ offers in malls !
Last, but not the least, it may be useful to guard against things that may hamper achievement of results – while ‘posing’ that they are useful. One of these is ‘isomorphic mimicry’ – i.e. such interventions that give a false sense that things are happening, when they are not. Social media, though useful for cross sharing, may lead to false ‘feel good’ factor. The other factor to be guarded against is ‘preloading’ – creating too much pressure early on, without adequate preparation. This may lead to inappropriate results, and consequent despair.
Given the unique challenges of Swachh Bharat, the views expressed above are not absolute prescriptions, just some concepts that may be tried. At the end of the day, continuous trial and desire to win can be game clinchers.

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