Persuasion is better than compulsion in making good citizens. So said Conservative decentralisation minister Greg Clark last week.
It is hard to dissent from that. One of New Labour’s enduring flaws was an unerring tendency to pass a law if it came across any form of behaviour it didn’t regard as wholesome.
Clark was taking part in a seminar to introduce research from Manchester and Southampton Universities on how to nudge citizens into becoming civic-minded and participating in socially responsible activities. Nudge has quickly become one of the Conservatives’ emerging policy tools, so it was a tad ironic that the research was commissioned by Labour three years ago, then hastily re-branded into providing an evidence base for the big society. But let’s not dwell on that.
In fact, the results gave a mixed message on the feasibility of the government’s big society plans. Yes, things like praise, recognition and simply asking can induce changes in behaviour. The experiments showed impressive results in getting people to recycle more and give to charity, though it wasn’t exactly rocket science
But volunteering proved a much harder nut to crack. In one experiment, callers to a local authority call centre were asked if they would like to take action on community issues in their local area. Sixty-three people said yes, but by the time the voluntary scheme was launched six months later only one person actually got involved.
David Cameron has said he wants citizens to participate actively in running the country. But the economic downturn and coming cuts in public spending will mean those people still in work will be working longer and harder. A quick dose of virtuous civic engagement after dinner may not be top of many people’s agendas.
The “exhausted volunteer” doesn’t sound a like a goer, as Neal Lawson of the think tank Compass has argued.
Then there is the problem of equity. As one audience member at the seminar argued, the concept of fairness is lacking in the big society. She asked her partner if he would be prepared to volunteer, and his response was: “Why should I? Bankers caused the recession, politicians spend people’s taxes on second homes – let them do it”.
Or, as Nick Clegg put it before he got his new job, the big society is “a bit like being invited to a party in a pub and finding that it’s your card behind the bar paying for everyone’s drinks.”