I am presently and very sharply experiencing the acute difference between change and pontification! And it is all down to a combination of cell phones and cars. What does this tell me/us about effective policy development related to change processes where the focus is social norms, culture, behaviour, and other 'people' factors?   

The Communication Initiative is focused on communication and media development - change is at the heart of this process - no use doing it if all we are interested in is the status quo. And change will be at the heart of your work, too. You will struggle every day to encourage and support (other!) people to consider, debate, and make changes to everything from their sexual behaviour to the exercising of their rights as citizens. The change we are seeking may be as apparently small (but with big effects) as using a bed net to prevent malaria and as apparently big (though small steps count) as seeking gender equity. You will have your own examples and interests.

British Columbia, Canada, where I now live, has recently introduced a law that, in effect, bans drivers of moving vehicles from using cell phones (mobile phones). Oh dear. As you might imagine, I am addicted to my cell phone. And I spend considerable time in the car. So, I use time in the car to make work calls - efficient use of time! The law was introduced Jan 1 2010, and the grace period (a warning not a ticket) is now over. Oh dear.

I still take my cell phone everywhere with me. Whilst driving it is very tempting to make calls, answer calls, check messages, answer texts, etc. But I do that much, much less than I did before the law was introduced. (There are occasional slips - please do not tell the local constabulary!). But, 95% of the time I obey the law. If I wish to use the phone whilst in the car, I pull over and stop.             
Which led me to ask myself - why I have changed? A personal reflection on social communication processes. We change all the time, of course, on all sorts of issues. But this cell phone and cars ban has very sharply focused the question for me.   

The most obvious answer: I don’t want to get caught and receive a ticket. No one likes to pay a fine or have a police record. But in many ways, looked at rationally, that is the least prominent reason to obey this new law. My city has 300,000 people and a total police force of maybe 500 cops, tops. They have lots to worry about. If I drive 50 miles once a week, I would be lucky to see a cop 2 or 3 times. So the numerical odds of being "caught" are very low, indeed. And the fine is low, anyway.

So, what really drives me and others to so dramatically change our ways?

Let's start with the social environment. Canada is a very law abiding country. That is the prevailing social norm. Which, of course, does not mean that there are not horrific crimes - a recent case convicted one person of 50 murders in Vancouver. But the norm is important. So, now that this is the law, there is a general social mood that says everyone should obey. Social environments, including the relationship between people and government, do of course differ from context to context - this is a Canadian reflection.           

One of the key aspects of this new law is that, by design or accident, it was heavily debated. People knew it was coming. Almost everyone over the age of 17 will be affected, as almost all have the two main ingredients required - cars and cell phones. Consequently, the (then) forthcoming ban on using cell phones in cars was the subject of widespread radio call-in shows, news programmes, school discussions, meal time chat, dialogue between friends, work place meetings - almost every social intercourse. The desirability, justification, and perceived benefits were dissected and assessed. In the end, a social consensus emerged (not unanimous but widespread) that the ban made sense and would help reduce death and injury due to road accidents. The law helped prompt that dialogue and consensus. Of course, this is the British Columbian context. Consensus (more or less) on an issue here may not be the consensus elsewhere.

The combination of the prevailing social norm and the consensus following debate and dialogue turned into peer approval or disapproval. One of the worst looks that I have received this month is from someone in a car next to mine as we waited for the lights to change at an intersection. I know these lights. The gap between red and green takes some time. So, a quick opportunity to feed the habit and check the texts! Big mistake. Clear, glowering, disapproving looks from the driver of the next-door car! And that look matters here. Heaven forbid if I should even think of doing anything related to the phone whilst driving one or more of my children. The condemnation is immediate and unequivocal. Who briefed them? And, if you do use the cell phone in your moving car whilst driving, you are very unlikely to confess this to friends and family - even whilst outside the car.

Finally, from these factors comes the very strong sense of either personal responsibility or social shame or fear - depending on your perspective. All 3 boil down to "what if..." - for example, what if I was on the phone, whilst driving, and I caused an accident? The above factors are all based on some form of social good. But there is no doubt that the negative "what if" plays a major role in my decision making. It can only play that role because the factors above set the context for what the reaction would be if something did happen - and I know that!                                       

I am sure that all of the change theorists out there can fit all of this into a relevant change theory. And cell phones being used by drivers of moving vehicles is hardly a major international development priority! But it is very important that we all reflect, adequately or not, on what drives us and our change processes. And for me (how about you?) it is the overall social environment, the consensus reached through extensive dialogue and debate, the 'peer' disapproval, and, in that context, the "What if" question.   

If correct (though I am hardly a good research population), then this highlights a necessary policy framework for major issues: work on the overall social environment - the success of specific laws will depend on that context; facilitate intensive debate and dialogue on key issues - policy which is only law can help prompt but is insufficient by itself; support and facilitate social reinforcement; and, finally, play out the "what if" scenarios - no good if that is all that happens, but it may be helpful in the context of these other factors.

Please tell me your personal reflections on changes you have made.