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Volunteer or else! How a nudge could turn into coercion

Is the concept of volunteering as time freely given to the community being subtly undermined?

A couple of recent developments suggest that, while no one is being coerced exactly into volunteering, it could soon become an expectation which influences whether individuals get housing or progress in their career. The carrot of material self-interest is certainly being dangled in front of people to encourage them to volunteer and perhaps the stick is being readied in the background

In March, Manchester City Council announced a new policy on access to its council homes. New bands were established to prioritise access to housing for particular kinds of people. Community workers and volunteers who make their neighbourhoods “a good place to live, work and play” are to be moved up a band, so they can be re-housed faster.

Meanwhile, the Conservative election manifesto promised to transform the civil service into the “civic service” by recognising “participation in social action” in civil servants’ appraisals.

We don’t yet know if this policy will be adopted by the Lib-Con coalition, but the intention seems to be to make volunteering a factor in whether public sector workers receive pay rises or promotions (although the likelihood of public sector workers getting pay rises in the current climate, even if they volunteered six nights a week, is pretty slim).

The idea is reminiscent of then-CBI director-general Digby Jones’s draconian proposal in 2004 to withhold pay rises from staff in the private and public sectors unless they could show they have volunteered for a charity. You will volunteer or else!

The Conservatives aren’t going that far, but they clearly want to muster as many forms of encouragement as they can to get the public to contribute to their ‘big society’. Their manifesto also promised to “use the latest insights from behavioural economics to encourage people to make volunteering and community participation something they do on a regular basis”.

The popular term for this is “nudging” and economist Richard Thaler, co-author of the behavioural economics manifesto Nudge, has been lined up as an adviser for the new government.

This creates a dilemma for volunteering organisations. One issue is whether those nudged will actually feel cajoled or bribed and resent the need to volunteer. The other is whether people will begin volunteering for completely ulterior motives.