It's important to set proper program objectives

Written by Karen Spehr & Rob Curnow, Community Change, 2011


There is a vast expenditure of wasted effort in programs to promote pro-environmental behaviour, the single most important reason being that many programs do not have properly defined objectives. Rather than start from a set of well formulated objectives, the typical way many programs get started is something like “we-want-households-to save-water-so-we’ll-get-people-to reduce-their-shower-time-and-run-an-information-campaign-and-give-out-shower-timers”. Reducing shower time is a water saving method easy to visualise, not like fixing water leaks that no one can see, and is perceived as something that everyone can do. An enthusiastic, well meaning team may consider an information campaign and timer giveaway sounds like a good idea that is comparatively easy to do. By this stage program planning is well underway, advertising campaigns are being developed and shower timers ordered. Many of our potential clients call us at this point to ask whether we can “help make the program work better and work out how to evaluate it”.


Here is the problem with this approach. Is an information campaign and shower timers really the best way to reduce showering time? Maybe there are better ways. Why was this thought to be the best way? Is there evidence for this? If there is, does it suggest the planned three week program will lead to a permanent change in behaviour with no relapse? Is there a plan if this happens? Does the evidence suggest that this strategy will apply to the particular target population in question? If a household reduction in water use is required, is reducing showering time the best place to start? Even though a lot of water is used in showering, how hard is it to get change compared to other water saving behaviours? Is focusing on shower time the best use of resources? All of these questions are much easier to answer if you can clearly describe your program’s objectives.



  1.   The behaviour you are trying to change OR the knowledge, belief, attitude, social
          expectation or skill related to the behaviour you are trying to change             
  2.   Your target audience – who you are trying to change
  3.   How much change you expect to get
  4.   Over what period you expect to get it


While this may seem incredibly obvious it’s quite difficult to do well. If you’ve ever learned to ski, remember how hard it was to go in the right direction until your instructor told you to focus on the direction you wanted to go rather than the tree you were trying to avoid? Or when you needed ingredients for a special meal, how difficult it was to shop for them without a list? Without one you ended up back at home without a crucial ingredient or with some extra items you didn’t really need but bought because they were on special.


Behaviour change programs are no different - the more clearly you can articulate where you are going the more likely you are to get there. If your goals are too broad or too vague, just like when you learned to ski, you end up arriving somewhere you didn’t intend to go. You either hit the wrong target audience or your program fails to address the particular behaviour you were trying to change.


Almost without exception the behaviour change programs we get asked to work on do not have clearly defined objectives. To us this feels like looking at a Google Maps image with very few pixels - its very grainy and you can’t really tell what’s there. We spend a lot of time at the start – often up to one third of our planning time – getting more highly pixelated objectives. A detailed view of what the intended destination looks like means it’s much easier to develop a comprehensive map to get there. The degree of clarity and detail in your objectives will also translate directly into the clarity and detail of the answers to problems that will inevitably come your way.


“I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” ~ Wayne Gretzky, widely regarded as the best ice hockey player of all time.


If you are tempted to quickly make up objectives on your own without consulting the people you are working with or for, your program is likely to fail early. Full discussion and agreement on objectives with all those who have a stake in the project will pay you back truckloads in time and effort when you implement it. If your project seems to be drifting off track, morphing into something that looks nothing like it was supposed to or not achieving results, chances are that the objectives have been forgotten amongst the hurly burly of implementation. Being able to review to your objectives as a group will let you see what has gone wrong and how to fix it much faster and with less angst.


Every program is different though and what looks like a well formulated objective for one type of program will look hopelessly wrong for another. Your particular objectives should be based on research evidence, the resources you have to commit to it, your local context and what can reasonably be agreed upon among your team and its management staff.


Your statements probably won’t look like the statements in the box below, they’ll look like something that suits your unique set of circumstances. For illustrative purposes, here are some examples which include the four component parts of an objective statement – the behaviour you are trying to change, who you are targeting, how much change you expect to get and over what period of time you expect to get it.


Notice that some statements include objectives on actual measurable behaviour change and others include statements about changes in knowledge or attitudes. While the latter may be more suitable for some programs, knowledge and attitude changes should always have a direct relationship to the behaviour you are trying to change.



Water saving

Following participation in the water saving program, high water use households (as defined by X) will reduce their water consumption by N litres per water bill. Lower water use households (as defined by Y) will decrease their consumption by 5%. These changes will be maintained for 3 consecutive water bills.


Energy saving

At least one month after participating in the energy saving program, household energy use will show a decrease of at least 8%. Key household members (as defined by X) will be able to identify at least 3 additional ways to save energy compared to before the program. These changes will be maintained for 2 consecutive power bills.


School education

By the end of the program, (a) the school will have conducted a basic audit of water use in the school and (b) students will be able to correctly answer at least 6 key questions on why we need to save water and how to save water at school. One month after the end of the program the school will have developed and commenced a water use reduction program. Three months after the program the school will have shown a decrease in water consumption of 5% compared to the same period last year.


Litter prevention

At the end of the program, location users will demonstrate (1) a reduction in littering behaviour and (2) improved (correct) use of litter and recycling bins. They will also demonstrate an improvement in their attitudes to (1) the importance of keeping the location clean and (2) their personal sense of responsibility to bin rubbish appropriately. These changes will be maintained for 6 months.


Whatever your objectives statements are, try to include as much detail as possible. One team meeting to arbitrarily decide on objectives will not be enough because your decisions will need to be informed by some basic research on what might be reasonably achieved given your resources and time frame. For example, the water saving objective in the box was informed by research that showed more water savings were likely to be made in absolute terms with people living in big houses with big gardens whereas for lower water users, more savings were likely to be made in percentage terms (1).


Allow for a series of meetings and a cooperative approach to formulating objectives. Although this process may feel like walking through treacle for a while, at the end everyone will know exactly where they are going and will be more likely to work out effective, creative, testable ways to get there. The opportunity for team members to ask questions and participate fully in this process also creates a powerful sense of ownership and commitment to making the program work. And once you have achieved your objectives you can set new ones …



Syme, G.J., Nancarrow, B.E. and Seligman, C. (2000). The evaluation of information campaigns to promote voluntary household water conservation. Evaluation Review, 24(6), 539-578.