Building the Big Society: Ask. Support. Listen.

In a monumental act of self sacrifice, I missed the first half of England vs. Slovenia on Wednesday in order to attend a conference on how randomised control trials – experiments to you and me – might help policy makers understand how we can get people (a.k.a citizens) more involved in public policy. The title for what turned out to be a very good seminar was: Is it better to nudge or to think? The seminar was based on work by academics at Manchester and Southampton Universities, including Peter John and Gerry Stoker, who in the past has advised NCVO through his work on local governance.

The researchers tested two approaches: the idea that we can ‘nudge’ people into doing more things by providing them with information ‘cues’ that encourage positive, so-called ‘pro-social’ behaviour. The idea that we can encourage – rather than compel – people to be good has risen up the agenda since the publication of Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. In the case of one experiment, the nudge was telling residents of a street how well they compared with a neighbouring street on household recycling. The second approach – whether we can get people to ‘think’ – asks whether citizens are prepared to engage in deliberation over complex issues. One example here included online-based deliberation forums where over a period of 10 days people were asked to discuss youth anti-social behaviour.


Anorak warning: a few words about methodology. I’ve referred to these as experiments: the important point here is that these interventions were all compared with ‘control groups’ were there wasn’t an intervention so that the researchers could be reasonably sure that the nudge or think is actually leading to changes in behaviour. There are some people who think randomised control trials should be used by voluntary organisations to demonstrate their outcomes – I’d expect to hear more about this in relation to the outcomes/impact debate in future. By the way, experiments cost between £10-25k each. (In a separate but related bit of work, Ipsos Mori have produced the 10 top tips to involving the public in helping you decide how to make tough decisions).

So, what do these experiments tell us? The researchers argued that nudges work particularly well. Surprisingly (to me, anyway) nearly all the nudges worked: so suggesting to people that their street might not recycle as much as the next street encouraged them to increase kerbside food recycling by 6%. Public displaying the names of donors who pledged to donate increase the rate of donations. I got the impression that deliberative exercises can work, but are less successful than nudging. Deliberation is clearly more time consuming and difficult and people’s motivations for involvement are complex.

So what? Gerry Stoker made a really interesting point that stuck with me: citizens are willing to change their behaviour, help themselves and help others. People are far more civic minded and prepared to be involved than we give them credit for. The panel discussion, which included Phillip Blond, Matthew Taylor (who admirably left the seminar early to watch the football with his son) and the particularly interesting Toby Blume however highlighted some real challenges for those who to want to build the Big Society with either nudge or think. Questioners asked

  • Nudge and think are aimed at solving mistrust in government – but what if it is government doing the nudging or running the deliberative exercises – will people be less responsive because of who is nudging or asking?
  • Do nudges only work with simple, easy behaviour changes, like taking rubbish to your household boundary?
  • Because these are experiments, do people behave in the way you want them to – and therefore will the real world be less successful?
  • If nudge and think encourage collaboration and consensus, where does that leave the engaged citizens who don’t want to be nudged – what might term the awkward squad?

Much of the discussion then turned to issues of citizen engagement and the Big Society. I would particularly recommend that you have a look at Kevin Harris’ write up of this part of the discussion – like Kevin, I was somewhat surprised by some of the comments about a lack of trust in society and the lack of architecture for engagement. NCVO and many others have said this time and again, but just because people don’t practice civic engagement it doesn’t mean they practice civil engagement. People are prepared to get involved, and they have many reasons for doing so. But they have to feel it is worth it.

One last thought. At the end I talked with the excellent David Wilcox about whether we were trying to overcomplicate some of this: fundraisers always say that despite reams of research on donor motivation, the reason people give to charity is because they are asked. David’s response was a very simple typology:

  • If you want people to give, ask them
  • If you want people to act, support them
  • If you want people to talk, listen

Photo: Dominic Campbell, available at via a creative commons licence

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Karl Wilding Karl Wilding served as NCVO's chief executive from September 2019 to February 2021.

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