Crowding out the big society?

by Chris Bertram on November 1, 2010

Windsor and Maidenhead Council (UK) “is planning a reward scheme”: (supermarket tokens and the like) for volunteers to help implement David Cameron’s “Big Society”:

bq. it is likely residents would get a loyalty card similar to those available in shops. Points would be added by organisers when cardholders had completed good works such as litter-picking or holding tea parties for isolated pensioners. The council says the idea is based on “nudge theory” – the thought that people don’t automatically do the right thing but will respond if the best option is highlighted. Points would be awarded according to the value given to each activity. Users could then trade in their points for vouchers giving discounts on the internet or high street.

Maybe the Council should have read more widely, since according to another body of literature (Bruno Frey, “Sam Bowles”: ), they risk sending out a signal that only a mug performs good works for no reward. An interesting natural experiment, to be sure, but not one that I’d wish on the residents of Windsor and Maidenhead.



Steve Laniel 11.01.10 at 11:49 am

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the policy described has little to do with nudges. When I think of the Nudge fellows, I think of setting *defaults* to something near the social optimum, then allowing people to flip the defaults back to whatever they’d otherwise pick. E.g., setting the default so that people contribute to a 401(k) if they take no action, or setting the organ-donation default to “yes.”

Merely creating a policy that pays people to do a good thing is just standard incentives theory, and predates the Nudge fellows by a few centuries. Yes, a nudge is a kind of incentive (maybe? … in my head that doesn’t sound right), but not all incentives are nudges.


Tim Wilkinson 11.01.10 at 12:14 pm

I suppose ‘nudges’ in general might be characterised by imperfect (to-whatever-degree-seems-convenient) rationality theorists as very mild incentives in the form of transaction costs. They can be bypassed by those who don’t buy into the modicum of unselfishness embodied in the ethos behind them – if they are sufficiently well-informed, organised, have accountants etc.. Just the kind of incentives that Cameron etc. like. See also self-‘regulation’, penalty charges supporting ‘free’ banking, etc.

And yes, this is basically a figleaf for slashing public services, with the side benefit of wringing every last bit of contribution out of the ‘mugs’ and/or keeping them busy and/or shutting them up if they complain and yet aren’t spending all their spare time on perfoirming tasks they’re not skilled in or equipped for (litter picking involves some skill and a fair bit of specialist equipment, for example. FFS.)


Davis X. Machina 11.01.10 at 12:29 pm

Corvée labour.
Forward into the past.


BillCinSD 11.02.10 at 12:25 am

“they risk sending out a signal that only a mug performs good works for no reward. ”

Risk sending out a signal? Isn’t this the exact signal conservatives want to send?


zamfir 11.02.10 at 6:27 am

I have heard some governments go a step further, and give out special vouchers for useful work that are legally valid in all shops, and can even be used to pay your taxes. With such a system, some people even quit their normal job, and specialize full-time in civil service.


ajay 11.02.10 at 12:25 pm

3: corvee labour is compelled you silly man.

5: the point here is, I think, that the money isn’t coming from the government – the plan seems to be to bully-pulpit local supermarkets into paying, essentially, more tax in order to fund social services.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that as a concept.


andy 11.02.10 at 2:34 pm

Smacks a bit of Glasshouse, by Stross.


Zamfir 11.02.10 at 2:56 pm

that the money isn’t coming from the government; the plan seems to be to bully-pulpit local supermarkets into paying
I completely missed that. That’s even crazier.


ajay 11.02.10 at 4:53 pm

Well, I don’t know that for sure, but the Guardian writeup says “The points would be given free by the commercial partner in return for the publicity and marketing opportunities, with the local authority picking up the relatively small cost of administering the scheme.”

So it’s not any different, really, from (to pick one example) encouraging companies to let their employees do charitable work on the firm’s time, which happens quite a lot already. It’s basically a backdoor tax on local businesses to support local services. Worth a try, anyway. If it works, hooray.

My gut feeling is that it might work rather better than paying people in money – Nectar points don’t really feel like money and so might not evoke the adverse consequences referred to in the second para.

Smacks a bit of Glasshouse, by Stross.

That’s a bit harsh. I thought the Guardian article was quite well-written. Glasshouse was like an episode of Blake’s Seven scripted by Camille Paglia.


Davis X. Machina 11.03.10 at 4:58 pm

corvee labour is compelled you silly man.

Give them time. It’s a brand-new initiative, to which features can be added as it grows. And full props to the Tory council for figuring out something even more retrograde than the poll tax. It required effort and ingenuity, and local government is often short on both.


Guano 11.05.10 at 5:35 pm

This is one of the themes of Tony Hancock’s famous “Blood Donor” episode from 50 years ago.

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