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Newsletter, September 2008


Contents this month

Paying incentives: does it pay off?

If you were asked to participate in a citizens’ deliberative process about, let’s say, primary education, would you be tempted to take part? Going to some meetings – on a Saturday of course – and discussing possible improvements to school systems, all in order to give useful input to policymakers charged with the revision of the system. Would you accept the invitation? If not, would it make a difference if you were offered £50 plus expenses?

It is not uncommon these days that incentives are part of the recruitment for public engagement processes. For large scale processes in particular, where it is imperative that an ample degree of representativeness is achieved, the organisers tend to encourage people to participate by offering them some cash. After all, they are being asked to invest a large amount of their spare time in a project that someone, somewhere, has decided to run. It doesn’t seem unreasonable to compensate them for that. Or does it?

Moral incentive

Let’s look at an example. In their bestseller Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner present the case of the Israeli nursery that started fining parents for being late to collect their children. The measure was intended to reduce the number of parents coming in long after the nursery’s closing time. Interestingly, it increased instead. It is apparent that many parents preferred to pay the fine than make the effort to be on time. The fine, to some level, justified their behaviour and relieved them from their guilt, their moral incentive.

The example points out that in some cases, moral and financial incentives can be substitutes. This has substantial implications, as participants of some major public engagement processes have pointed out in surveys and interviews. For some, the financial incentive they received is a true burden. They feel obliged to make their participation count and worry that they are unable to live up to the expectations of those who are paying them. Others mention their annoyance when noticing that some participants evidently have no drive to be there other than to receive the incentive.

Money well-spent

These remarks confirm the statement by Levitt and Dubner, stressing the tension between moral and financial incentives. Obviously, participants making these remarks are likely to be the ones who would have participated regardless of the incentive. They find their reasons and behaviour troubled by the financial incentive, since to them it is redundant. From the sponsor’s point of view, granting incentives that make people feel uncomfortable is probably not money well-spent. Incentives are considered money well-spent if they clearly result in better representativeness figures. This, however, is very difficult to determine: few participants will be willing to admit that the money is what made them come, even if it is.

We will save the question about the value of representativeness for another occasion and for now just assume it is substantial. Instead let us concentrate on the price of representativeness. The cost of the incentive is part of that. If 500 citizens were to be involved in the engagement process on primary education and each would receive the £50, we are talking about £25,000. A lot of money, though still only a fraction of some mass engagement processes’ budgets. There is, however, more to it. The examples have shown that people’s attitudes tend to alter as soon as a financial return comes into play. Suddenly, everything and everyone has a price: participants may value their time investment against the cash received; facilitators may value the participants’ efforts against the cash they have been awarded. Moral considerations – a commitment to engagement as part of a civic responsibility or just because you think the topic is important – are likely to erode. Does such a shift leave the quality of the process and its result unaffected and ultimately does it question the value we place on public involvement?

Remco van der Stoep


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