Perhaps one could have predicted how the Public Health Responsibility Deal would be reported today.
On one hand the Government welcomes 170 food and drink producers and retailers signing up to a series of pledges. On the other hand we see news reports that many of the big health charities are not prepared to commit to it at this stage as they claim the self-regulated retailer approach does not go far enough in setting challenging targets.
An important question for the Government and commercial producers and retailers is whether some of this attempt at voluntary positive behavioural change by organisations will be just seen by the public in very cynical terms?
“A life of booze, fags and slothfulness may be enough to earn your doctor’s disapproval, but there is one last hope: a repeat prescription of mates and good conversation.
“A circle of close friends and strong family ties can boost a person’s health more than exercise, losing weight or quitting cigarettes and alcohol, psychologists say.
“Sociable people seem to reap extra rewards from their relationships by feeling less stressed, taking better care of themselves and having less risky lifestyles than those who are more isolated, they claim.
“A review of studies into the impact of relationships on health found that people had a 50% better survival rate if they belonged to a wider social group, be it friends, neighbours, relatives or a mix of these.
“The striking impact of social connections on well-being has led researchers to call on GPs and health officials to take loneliness as seriously as other health risks, such as alcoholism and smoking.
“We take relationships for granted as humans,” said Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a psychologist at Brigham Young University in Utah. “That constant interaction is not only beneficial psychologically but directly to our physical health.”
What this implies is that a company working in food retailing may want to avoid directly funding nutrition or anti-obesity campaigns which might be seen as cynical or a conflict of interests. It is instead about companies building relationships and social networks and changing the context through which behaviour happens, which then helps people make better informed personal choices.
Building deeper authentic relationships are exactly what business marketing and branding is all about nowadays. Constructing stronger social networks within poorer communities helps contribute to changing the contexts by which negative behaviours such as obesity develop and are reinforced. This creates levels of sustainability that can actually lead to increased profits as companies respond to the new or better behaviours that are developed and reinforced; and compared to the public sector have the market insight to respond to them more quickly and effectively.
As the Guardian report indicates, irrespective of the specific intervention, it is the social network itself that contributes to individual and community resilience and motivation. Thus focusing on the network building rather than the direct intervention could be better value for money for the public sector, but also for the private sector too. Indeed this more flexible approach is something the private sector might more easily deliver than a public sector, committed as it would be, to specific interventions and specific outcomes.
The irony of the Responsibility Deal is that for all its non-regulatory Nudging it actually comes across as rather top-down Big Government. This means they perhaps missed a genuine Big Society opportunity here.
There is still a danger that the new Public Health agenda and its Outcomes Framework could continue to miss this Big Society opportunity of more localised interventions as we have further blogged here.
Thankfully, the current consultation (until 31 March) on the Public Health White Paper and its Outcomes Framework still enables an opportunity to feed these approaches into the debate on how preventative behaviour change is delivered and measured.