Communications for Development: an analysis of the role of change agents in public programs

Here’s the abstract from a paper Nick gave yesterday at the 2012 Indonesia International Conference on Communication.

Governments, non-profits, businesses and other social change leaders face significant and persistent challenges to their efforts to address public policy issues. Attempts to improve outcomes through use of social and behaviour change models and strategies have had mixed results. Social marketing and other communications programs developed to address social issues, such as alcohol-related harm among young people, often focus on narrow frames for individual behaviours. Such programs often fail to reach target populations, to meet their understanding of an issue and their means to address it.

Public programs, for example those focused on health or education, often require “change agents” to effectively disseminate the messages that lead to social and behaviour change. This study will shed light on the moderating effect a community has on the effectiveness of change agents – peer educators, community health workers and counsellors – in disseminating information and influencing how it is received and used by members of any given group.

How government-led and other communications programs identify, construct and interpret these communities, populations and publics, helps determine how the problem is represented and addressed. To borrow from Marshall McLuhan (1994), it is a community – the masses – which moderates individual and social change, by affecting both the medium and the message.

The role of social dynamics, hierarchies of influence, information dissemination and consumption are often poorly understood or applied as vectors that influence behaviour change. Theories of diffusion of innovations and community psychology are useful to frame how information is moderated, shared and influenced within communities. This study will draw on these theories to develop a new approach to make social marketing campaigns more effective.

This study will adapt a field experiment design to test this approach in two case studies from Australia and Indonesia, using qualitative techniques to verify the findings. This will combine the relative strengths of internal validity for experimental work and external replicability for qualitative analysis. The Australian case study will focus on alcohol-related harm reduction programs implemented by the non-profit, Hello Sunday Morning (HSM). The Indonesian case study will focus on ‘High-5’, an integrated hygiene improvement program managed by the Cipta Cara Padu (CCP) Foundation.

If we can better understand how a sense of community influences change agents, we can design better interventions. This research will help governments, non profits and businesses to better understand how a community influences the dissemination of information within it and improve interventions aimed at achieving individual behaviour and social change.

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