Published on January 25, 2011

What role for government in encouraging social action?

By Tim Hughes

Tim is Open Government Programme Manager at Involve and coordinator of the UK Open Government Network - a coalition of active citizens and civil society organisations committed to making government work better for people through increased transparency, participation and accountability.

The Giving Green Paper, launched just before the New Year, reasserted the Coalition Government’s ambition to encourage the growth of social action – ‘people giving what they have, be that their time, their money, or their assets, knowledge and skills, to support good causes and to make life better for all’ – in order to build the Big Society.  This is a laudable, though not particularly contentious goal.  Social action and participation are generally regarded as normative concepts – more is better – and have been linked with a number of positive outcomes for individuals and society.

But what is the most effective and appropriate way for government to encourage participation?  Disagreement, for the most part, will centre on these questions over the coming months and years.  In the Giving Green Paper, the government is clear that participation cannot be mandated: ‘Social action is not something that government can, or should, compel people to do; it has to be built from the bottom up, on the back of free decisions by individuals to give to causes around them’.

This removes from policy makers their traditional “policy levers” of enforcing compliance through the imposition of regulation and taxes, and has consequentially created much interest in the insights and application of theories of behavioural economics, particularly Nudge and MINDSPACE.  Based on these theories, the Giving Green Paper includes a number of suggestions of how social action may be encouraged by government, whether by providing more attractive opportunities, presenting better information, increasing visibility, facilitating reciprocity or giving support.

The most effective and appropriate way for government to encourage participation will only be worked out through experimentation, discussion and learning (my next blog will explore an example of a local authority experimenting with a new way of facilitating social action in its locality).  But it must be remembered that there is already a great deal of expertise and experience within the voluntary and charity sector that policy makers must learn from, not ignore.

Pathways through Participation (a joint research project between Involve, NCVO and the Institute for Volunteering) will, I believe, make an important contribution towards this process of discovery by informing our understanding of how and why people participate in their local communities and beyond, what makes them get active and express their views, what connects their involvements, and what keeps them from participating.

Image used by eastop.

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