In my last blog I argued that ‘the most effective and appropriate way for government to encourage participation will only be worked out through experimentation, discussion and learning’.  And I promised an example of a local authority already experimenting with a new way of encouraging social action in its locality. Well, here is that example…

Barnet Council has recently launched Barnet Pledgebank, a website where residents can pledge their time to help their community.  Pledgebank’s work on a principle of “I will if you will”; people commit to giving their time or money on the condition that others make a similar commitment.  Barnet states that the,

‘Pledgebank can be used to gather together people to get projects done.  These can be tasks such as clearing snow and ice from pavements in the street, painting over graffiti or setting up computer classes in your area. […] PledgeBank is designed to help residents passionate about doing their bit for the community. By working together, we can offer services that are popular and worthwhile.

The website is therefore essentially a platform that encourages and facilitates the giving and bringing together of resources for the social good. Pledges can be proposed or responded to by any local individuals, organisations or groups, and the site provides the opportunity for people to comment on pledges, asking questions or suggesting improvements.  An interesting feature of Barnet’s Pledgebank is that pledges can include the local authority itself.  The first pledge posted on the site, for example, stated that:

‘Barnet Council will provide 6 computers with internet access and a training room at Hendon Library but only if 2 local residents will volunteer to provide an hour’s I.T. training each week.’

It is pleasing to see councils such as Barnet innovating, particularly in collaboration with organisations like mySociety.  Whether or not the Pledgebank works, it is important that public institutions experiment and learn from such initiatives, and that we extend the body of evidence on how best to facilitate and encourage participation.  This can only happen by trying things, inevitably failing sometimes, but always learning.

Of particular interest to me is that the Pledgebank presents a potential route through which individuals and voluntary groups will be able to access the often-ignored non-financial resources of public institutions (e.g. space, skills, knowledge, publicity, etc.).  As budgets are squeezed, the ability of people to harness the latent resources of individuals, communities and organisations will be vital to generating social good. But this will depend upon engagement and buy-in across the council, and perhaps the wider public sector.

So will the Pledgeback work? When judged against the five elements suggested by the Giving green paper as being important to changing social norms and encouraging social action, the concept of a Pledgebank appears to come out quite well. It should provide easy access to information about existing opportunities to take part in social action, while also increasing the convenience (by decreasing the time and effort barriers) of making a commitment, recruiting others to the cause and accessing resources.  By its nature it should also facilitate the exchange of time, while increasing the visibility of opportunities for and acts of giving, and linking people to support that would otherwise be inaccessible.

But the success of the Pledgebank will of course be dependent upon individuals, organisations and groups using the platform.  It is early days, but at the time of writing the site only contains four pledges, with only one of these having met its target number of signatories.  There is a danger that if the Pledgebank does not develop a critical mass of contributors while it is fresh and new, momentum will be lost and the site will be forgotten. The web is littered with abandoned sites developed through similar initiatives.  Key to preventing this will likely be Barnet’s ability to engage people in the places (online or offline) that they already participate.

Participation levels may not be helped by the Pledgebank being explicitly linked to Barnet Council.  Behavioural economics has taught us of the importance of the messenger to whether a message is heeded and behaviour adopted.  There is a distinct chance that some may be put off from volunteering by the idea that they are taking over services previously provided by the council, while others may consider the idea as being too paternal; mirroring the “contracts” that parents sometimes make with their children to encourage them to help.  On the other hand, it may be the case that the badge of the council adds greater legitimacy to the initiative.  Most likely, groups will be affected in different ways; some will be encouraged, while others discouraged to participate.

A key test for the site will therefore be whom it attracts. Will it reach those who do not currently volunteer, or will it just engage the usual suspects?  On the one hand, we know that young people are far more likely to participate online than offline.  If web based Pledgebanks can bridge the gap between online and offline participation, there is the potential to encourage increased volunteering at a key stage in individuals’ participation pathways.  But on the other hand, we also know that online forms of participation favour the wealthy and educated, while they typically exclude the same groups that are also marginalised in offline forms of participation.  If and how Barnet tries to engage these groups, broadening the opportunities for participation from the few to the many, will be key to its success.

Image used: graur razvan ionut