When I opened a letter from my council inviting me to apply for a free shovel to keep pavements clear this winter, it brought home that I'm exactly the sort of person Big Society might target. I work full time so I don't have masses of time during the week, but we know from the Citizenship survey that those in employment are more likely to volunteer than the unemployed. I care about my local area (at least in as far as it affects the value of the flat I own).
From our qualitative work it is clear that in order for people to be motivated to engage they have to care about the area and the outcomes. And, importantly, I don't currently have either elderly parents or young children of my own to look after. Analysis Paul Dolan
presented yesterday at a Behaviour Change and the Big Society seminar adds support to my theory - as a woman without children I’m apparently in the group most likely to achieve an increase in my personal well-being by becoming more engaged – so it would be irrational for me not to.
Will I take up the (not so metaphorical) shovel? The letter suggests this is too good an opportunity to miss – shovels are free but you have to make the case for why your community should get one. After working on a project for Zurich Municipal, exploring risks facing the public sector
if nothing else I'd be concerned about the insurance implications if all I achieved was a path more slippery than before. But there has to be more to it than that.
For me, it all comes back to two things: influence and fairness.
By feelings of influence I mean influence over thing I want to influence. I initially joined my Tenant and Resident Association (TRA) because I felt I had none: a pretty common reason according to our work with Urban Forum and IPEG on behalf of CDF about feelings of influence
. To date being a member of the TRA has been surprisingly successful; we've had a new, secure bike shed installed and last week we heard our collective action to challenge excessive service charges has been at least a partial success. But all this has a direct impact on my life. I put in the time because I could see what I would get back. Maybe in February I will be slipping and sliding down the road and wishing I'd accepted the gift of a shovel. Maybe time credits
will be the selfish motivation I need to engage further – because by donating my time I can get something back, thus linking back to influencing outcomes that are of personal interest.
The second challenge comes down to perceptions of fairness, and what others are doing. If everyone pulls their weight then I'm happy to play a part. But I don't want to be the first, and I don't want to do something that is part of someone else’s job description. Our research suggests I'm not alone. This has interesting implications for fairness – if people in one area pull together to make the most of opportunities, but other areas wait for someone else to make the first move and suffer as a result, is this fair?.
In our work for the 2020 Public Services Trust
some people thought it would be OK to have participatory budgeting which gave final responsibility to residents. Their logic was that those who care about their area will turn up and get what they deserve, and it is tough luck to those who choose not to get involved and whose areas suffer as a result. They speculate that, in time, jealousy might drive others to engage when they see what they are missing out on. It feels a bit mercenary, and the short term implications for fairness are considerable, but maybe just maybe it would be the encouragement people need?