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PACE - A place leader's perspective on behavioural change - Q&A with Katie Stewart

This month, we put some questions about PACE and 2023's behavioural change programme to Katie Stewart, Joint Chair of ADEPT's South East Board (SEDEPT).

What attracted you to PACE? Many people have said the time and space to think about key issues, what would you add?

The opportunity to really explore in depth the challenges we face with other executive directors is a rare one. we never get the chance. But it’s so important to know that we are all facing the same kind of problems and we’re all facing the same fight, so to speak. That, alongside just having the time and space to think and reflect is one of the most important aspects of the PACE programme.

The ability to connect and shape the programme collaboratively is unique, I think, and really sets PACE apart. After some debate, we all agreed that the programme should focus on behavioural insight – it’s one of the conversations everyone in our sector is having right now. Also, how the programme evolved and was shaped by us – with each session shaping the next, made it really special and absolutely focused on a place perspective.

What led the group to choose behavioural insight for 2023?

For me, the collective decision to explore behavioural change illustrates just how much our role has transformed in the last 10 or so years and continues to evolve. If you look at our titles you would think the role is much the same, but now it’s about transforming the places we serve and expecting the communities that live in them to behave differently. What has changed the role so completely is that expectation around behavioural change. That has made behavioural insight intrinsic to our roles and given it a critical importance.

What did you think about the mix of specialists from academia, DfT and private sector?

I’ll admit to some initial scepticism at having academics as part of this process. I have a great respect for academia, but it’s just that we have to be so rooted in service delivery. However, having the balance between academics, private sector and central government practitioners (the DfT Behavioural Insights Team) meant we could tie our experience and that knowledge together. Those multiple perspectives enabled us to create something particularly relevant to us as executive directors.

What was even more exciting was the practicality. With the programme’s evolution being so focused on us as a collective group, it was very hands-on. Although the theory gave us a kind of framework, what came out of it was absolutely applicable to our actual practice as opposed to being high level strategic. I think this is one of PACE’s great strengths. 

Do you think the specialists also learnt something?

I like to think they took something away with them when they listened to our experiences. It was an opportunity for people who specialise in theory and providing advice to really get under the skin of the day to day experience. On a personal level, trying to deliver new schemes (like active travel) can be quite painful these days when you are being shouted down by hundreds of residents in a school hall for trying to introduce a cycle lane in their area. I really hope that personal experience of the practitioner was a takeaway for those involved - it was definitely a two-way conversation.

What gave you most food for thought?

I came in thinking I don’t need theory, I do this all the time. But actually, the value of having a theoretical framework that you can use to organise your thoughts was probably the biggest realisation. And following that, how we don’t ever have the time to do this – to take a step back, reflect and actually gather ideas. To be able to use the theory and the academic research, and really be curious enough to ask the questions, and have the time to explore that curiosity was extraordinary. It’s not that there’s a silver bullet, but you do come up with the solution you’re searching for – and find it was there all along. 

The other wake up call for me was that you have to be able to organise your thoughts differently, and that of your teams. Behaviour change isn’t just about the residents, it’s about us as well as our teams and Members. We have to change our approach and our behaviours if we’re going to achieve the transformation that we believe is best for our communities and their quality of life.

Are there any innovations coming out of PACE that you are going to introduce?

Yes, and it started while I was on the programme. We were delivering a pilot active travel scheme in Surrey which was proving to be quite contentious. Because of that level of negativity, I was really looking for insight into how we could frame the engagement exercise around that scheme. I came away with some ideas about how to challenge our own assumptions about what the community want, but also the value of destruction-testing and pre-mortems (more information in the Session 3 document) which we applied in the pilot. It’s been exciting to have used behavioural insight in practice so we can evaluate what worked and how to use that going forward. The other key challenge for me is how to resource resident insight work as well as our communications and community engagement capacity to deliver these schemes. We need to reprioritise resource into these new capabilities and deploy them from the outset. In Surrey, we now have a Resident Insight Unit led by our communications team to invest in understanding our communities.

What are your key takeaways?

I think the biggest one is don’t make any assumptions. It sounds obvious, but we don’t realise how often we do it or listen to only certain voices. As difficult as it is, we really do need to be in our communities and asking questions. We have to genuinely understand what a community’s behaviours are, what it will take for them to change, and not assume that it will be the same for the community next door. For me, it’s been a real eye-opener – the whole industry has to change because of our lack of experience at doing this well. We’ve moved into a different environment for place leadership and we have to change fundamentally. 

What has been the most important element of PACE for you?

For me, that has been the connections I’ve made with executive director colleagues. We’ve spent time together and shared challenges and experiences on a very different level. As well as the structured thinking, there’s time for informal networking and building relationships that is invaluable. It’s made me realise that place directors nationally are actually a tight-knit group with big responsibilities. Knowing you’re in it with other people is a good feeling.

Finally, how important is place leadership for place directors?

Absolutely critical. What’s come out of PACE for me is realising we have the answers, but we have to have the time to think things through, particularly in those early stages. We have to constantly challenge ourselves – am I doing the right thing now, but also, am I looking far enough into the future? AI is a perfect example, it’s not just what’s happening now, but what’s the next iteration of AI going to be and how do we prepare ourselves for that? Sadly, we have less and less time to do this, but it’s what makes a unique programme like PACE so vitally important.


Katie Stewart is Joint Chair of ADEPT's South East Board (SEDEPT) and Executive Director for Environment, Transport and Infrastructure, Surrey County Council.

Further information

Session documents and thought blogs from place leaders about PACE, thought leadership  and behavioural change are all available on the PACE webpage:

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