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Improving People's Health: Applying behavioural and social sciences to improve population health and wellbeing in England

Executive summary

  • Public Health England
  • Faculty of Public Health
  • Association of Directors of Public Health
  • Behavioural Science and Public Health Network
  • Local Goverment Association

Figure 1. Conceptualising the contributions of behavioural and social sciences.

Aim, vision and mission of this strategy

The aim of this strategy is to better enable the broad public health system to use behavioural and social sciences to benefit the health of the population. We want all public health organisations in England to make the most of the contribution of behavioural and social sciences to the protection and improvement of the public’s health and wellbeing. We have a vision of a strong and vibrant behavioural and social science community that champions best practice to deliver these improvements.

Our mission is to improve health and wellbeing outcomes for the population, reduce health inequalities, and improve value to the public purse. This strategy provides high-level guidance on how to do this, applying the insights and riches from behavioural and social science to public health practice. The stakeholders, learned societies, and agencies that contributed to this strategy identified eight priority themes to work on for the future and a number of related actions to be taken (Table 1).

Priority Theme Actions
Evidence and theory Increase the number of programmes, policies, and interventions that are (i) underpinned by evidence, principles, and methods from the behavioural and social sciences and (ii) aligned with evidence-based guidelines where available
Leadership of our organisations Make knowledge and skills from the behavioural and social sciences mainstream in all our organisations that commission, research, design, deliver or evaluate public health services
Wider system leadership Embed behavioural and social science skills, tools and frameworks across sectors of the public health workforce
Access to expertise Assist commissioners, decision makers and practitioners to understand and apply evidence and approaches from the behavioural and social sciences to public health issues
Tools and resources Provide a range of tools, methods and resources to support the use of approaches from the behavioural and social sciences
Capacity building Develop the skills and competencies of the public health workforce, so they can commission and deliver behaviour change interventions and programmes underpinned by behavioural and social science theory and evidence
Research and translation Encourage behavioural and social science research funding streams (including streams that are integrated with other public health disciplines) and the development of collaborative and multidisciplinary research capacity (with a focus on applied approaches) and dissemination
Communities of practice Strengthen or establish vibrant networks/communities of practice, improve quality of service, and promote exchanges of scientific information and professional experience

Table 1. Priority themes and actions to support people in developing and applying behavioural and social science.

The behavioural and social sciences are still underutilised in practice and insufficiently integrated when applied to public health, and the workforce that is qualified to provide this behavioural and social science input remains small. Complex social phenomena and the pressures and challenges imposed on individuals by the contemporary world, as well as digital innovation and system restructuring, mean that we need to enlist and learn from these sciences more thoroughly, and strengthen transdisciplinary approaches (which are problem-based and ‘person-centred’), to deliver effective and efficient change.

Five key principles for good practice

Since this strategy brings together a variety of stakeholders, including people coming from different disciplinary traditions that may have different terminologies, we agreed in a stakeholder workshop on five key principles to govern our common approach:

  1. We should all use inclusive language that does not alienate.
  2. We should all think outside of our disciplinary boundaries and cooperate across disciplines in order to ensure a multi-disciplinary approach.
  3. We should promote our common focus on improving public health and reducing health inequalities.
  4. We should involve end users in the development and implementation of behavioural and social sciences to benefit the public’s health.
  5. Our approach should be reflective and critical, informed by the evidence, and involve the highest possible standard of evaluation.

Although in this strategy we highlight different disciplines and the contributions they can make to public health, we seek to build policies and interventions in a transdisciplinary manner. We envisage a future where analyses of issues and their aetiology are not discipline-specific, but draw on insights from across the behavioural and social sciences.