Citizen Contribution to Local Public Services: Field Experiments in Institutions incorporating Social Information

Collaborators: Professor Peter John (University College London), Professor Gerry Stoker (University of Southampton), Ms Elizabeth Richardson (The University of Manchester)

  • Awarded to: Professor Oliver James
  • Funding Awarded to Exeter: £218,320
  • Dates: 1 January 2013 - 6 June 2015
  • Sponsor(s): Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Citizen contributions to public goods are regarded as increasingly important by researchers and policy-makers. These include volunteering to make communities better places. The classic problem is that there are strong incentives for these goods not to be provided, which derive from social norms and competing pressures on people's time. A core idea in recent thinking in behavioural economics and the study of collective action, is that the way information is presented to citizens matters. This can include who makes the request, what social norm is conveyed, and how the behaviour of other participants is recorded. The key idea is that an external agency, what we call an institution, is capable of presenting these messages in ways that are encouraging and help citizens overcome obstacles to participating. We are particularly interested in whether recommendations from prominent people such as those in the voluntary sector can promote civic action, and whether the mentioning of politicians might have a downward effect when compared to other public figures (while being positive overall). We are interested in finding out whether conveying the social norm is important. We want to know whether the form of feedback to citizens creates more of a response. We will feedback information in different ways to examine how it enhances citizen participation. Critically, we are interested in whether the effect of social information is sustained in time or whether the effect diminishes.


Our method is the randomized controlled trial, which can isolate the effect of an intervention. The proposal will carry out experiments on two kinds of citizen action. The first is about citizen contributions to a timebank, which is about logging people's time for volunteering. We will work with ten local timebanks, seeing to recruit people by a randomly allocated letter that conveys a commendation from a prominent politician, community representative or fellow citizen. Once we have recruited these people we will monitor their attendance and activities, and see to encourage them to contribute. We will carry out a similar randomised controlled trial to recruit students to an event and to continue voluntary action. Again we test the importance of an endorsement by a politician and important person, with the idea that this person's promised own contribution to a timebank will increase contributions. Again we will monitor this by feedback, but will add an additional feature, whether a financial incentive will increase contributions or crowd them out. With these findings we will be in a position to find out what things public institutions can do to increase voluntary contributions by citizens, in particular by providing them with information that encourages the voluntary donation of time.