Building the Big Society: can reward schemes encourage civic volunteering?

Paul Raven @ 02-11-2010

While our American readers have their own political maelstrom to deal with at the moment, over here in the UK we’re starting to get our first stable glances at the Janus faces of our new coalition government. David Cameron’s “Big Society” idea aims to replace Big Government social schemes with localised and voluntary civic involvement… which on the surface sounds rather wonderful (in a utopian minarchist kind of way), until you realise that cutting costs in social welfare is primarily aimed at being able to avoid taxing the highest earners any harder (you don’t wanna upset that power-base, Dave). It’s all about how you sell it to the peons, after all.

Ignoring the politics for a moment, though,  it’s interesting to start thinking about how the kind of community self-support that the Big Society idea seeks to create can be encouraged. I’m always a little wary of anyone who starts harking on about The Good Old Days (you could leave your door unlocked all the time, apparently), The Blitz Spirit and so on, but I am fairly convinced that the much-lamented decline in our sense of community is a genuine phenomenon, encouraged by years of policies and law that effectively tell people that almost everything is someone else’s responsibility: take away that sense of ownership and communal responsibility, and you’ve disincentivized participation. (“It’s not my canal, so why should I fish shopping trolleys out of it? I pay taxes so someone else can be paid to do it; not my job, mate.”)

So the problem is: how do we encourage people to voluntarily contribute to the upkeep of their communities? One potential solution is being tried out in the Windsor and Maidenhead areas, and it’s already a familiar one from the world of commerce – a voucher reward scheme.

Officers are still working out the practicalities, but it is likely residents would get a loyalty card similar to those available in shops. Points would be added by organisers when cardholders had completed good works such as litter-picking or holding tea parties for isolated pensioners.

The council says the idea is based on “nudge theory” – the thought that people don’t automatically do the right thing but will respond if the best option is highlighted. Points would be awarded according to the value given to each activity.

Users could then trade in their points for vouchers giving discounts on the internet or high street.

The points would be given free by the commercial partner in return for the publicity and marketing opportunities, with the local authority picking up the relatively small cost of administering the scheme. The scheme might be extended to reward improved behaviour in areas such as school attendance and healthy living…

As Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber points out, there’s an obvious flaw with the idea:

Maybe the Council should have read more widely, since according to another body of literature (Bruno Frey, Sam Bowles ), they risk sending out a signal that only a mug performs good works for no reward.

Which is a good point, though I feel we may be a fair distance down that road already. Another valid criticism is that only the able-bodied will benefit from such a system, effectively recreating the social burden of welfare dependence and placing it on the shoulders of the not-quite-so-unfortunate members of the community, instead of on the shoulders of the government (who, it could be argued quite fairly, are the root cause of that hierarchical dependency in the first place). Think about it: anyone who’s getting by well enough to be meeting all their bills every month has no motivation to volunteer for food vouchers, so your volunteer pool is going to comprise those already closest to being welfare dependent themselves. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see that such a system is going to enhance the stratification of society rather than help flatten it…. which may go some way to explaining its appeal to the conservative mind-set.

But as I said above, there’s a nugget of validity in the Big Society idea which, stripped of the politics and spin and hidden motives, might be well worth chasing after… because it implies that people are waking up to the idea that the old left-right polar politics is dead in the water. As Vinay Gupta puts it:

If the big society is not ever an alternative to the market, then it logically exists only in the space being relinquished by government through spending cuts and withdrawal of services. It exists purely to buffer public service cuts.

On the other hand, if the big society is sometimes an alternative to the market, then we are seeing government suggest that people turn away from market capitalism and the state for provision of some of their services.

In the first instance, Big Society would be an utter sham and a diabolical lie. The Tories would be suggesting that we simply work for free to do the things that government used to do for us rather than, say, taxing the rich to continue doing the jobs at hand. This accusation has become standard rhetoric already.

In the second instance, however, something more subtle is going on. The State is telling us to organize to take back territory from it and from the market. We can logically deduce that we must be in this second case, too, because the state has no power to compel the Big Society not to fill some needs which would otherwise go to the market.

Gupta is more optimistic than myself (and, it would appear, the British body politic), because everyone bar the Tories themselves seems pretty much convinced that the first interpretation is the accurate one. But Gupta’s second option has many of the hallmarks of an unpalatable and inconvenient truth, and is worth considering in more detail:

… this turn of the wheel is not privatization. Not even [the Conservatives] believe in the power of the market any more, and into this loss of faith rush new archetypes, which is to say old ideas reborn. No longer is the Market the panacea, the universal solvent for all of our social woes. They cannot sell it because they themselves no longer believe it. It has been tried, and failed.


The Big Society could turn out Victorian, Feudal, Democratic Socialist, Swiss, even Anarcho-Syndicalist. It could draw influences from anywhere. But it is unambiguously a move off the traditional left-right axis of politics and I believe this is why we are all so confused by it.

I’m inclined to agree, and I’d suggest that the confusion is born of suddenly finding that those who’ve always maintained their leadership over us by proclaiming that they had all the answers have pretty much called their own bluff. And as such, an opportunity arises for us to start taking back control of our communities from the apparatus of the state, an opportunity to start thinking – and working – for ourselves.

The council reward schemes mentioned above, whether by design or not, are a way of replacing the welfare state with a sort of feudal corporate patronage (one wonders what incentives participating corporations might be offered by the government in return for their freebies… perhaps Vodafone could answer that one for us?); they represent an abdication of responsibility for civic duties by both the government and ourselves, and I find myself thinking of remixed double-page spreads from the 2000AD comics wherein every tower-block is sponsored by a corporation, of which the government is simply one of many*. It might work, but it’ll be pretty grim if it does.

What would be better, I believe, would be to reinstate a sense of community which is its own reward, a sense of community where we look after ourselves without having to be bribed with junk food or consumer goods. I’m not claiming to know how to do it, either, but – given that it’s the option that reduces government power and our dependence on such – I think it’s a question well worth considering.

[ * Yeah, I’m a child of my generation, no mistake. 🙂 ]

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2 Responses to “Building the Big Society: can reward schemes encourage civic volunteering?”

  1. gmoke says:

    from Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus, page 131:
    “In January 2000, an unusual paper called ‘A Fine Is a Price’ appeared in the _Journal of Legal Studies_. Written by Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, it was about psychology, though it appeared in a legal studies journal; it was short, in a field given to writing by the yard; it was written in plain (and quite vivid) English; and it attacked a central tenet of legal theory, namely that deterrence is a simple and reliable way to affect people’s behavior.”

    Haifa childcare late fees: 10 childcare centers , 6 institute fines for picking up children late, 4 retain old system without fines. Centers with fines see rise in late pick up and that rise persists even after fine is removed. The fine is perceived as a fee for use and destroys the culture of respect that depressed late pick up in the centers which did not ever fine parents for lateness.

    In other words, the idea of vouchers for community service will monetize communitarian impulses and depress those very impulses starting now and continuing into the future even when the vouchers are recognized as a bad idea and removed.

  2. Wintermute says:

    Actually I think Big Society would totally fly over here in good ‘ol America.

    We like to do things Big. 🙂