Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Gift Government: My RADICAL IDEA for BigSociety!

Predictably Irrational Behaviours.

By Liz Azyan , in Government Strategy , at September 24, 2010 Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Hi guys,

I’ve been wanting to say something about the BigSociety but have held back for a while because I wanted to make sure that when I open my mouth, I’d have an idea to contribute to the cause. And may I be late into the game, I’m glad that I waited because I feel I now have an idea…. great or not, I’ll let you be the judge of that! 😉

Predictably Irrational

This is a radical idea i got for BigSociety from a book called “Predictably Irrational” by Dan Ariely regarding social norms and gift economy. Here is Dan Ariely talking about “The cost of social norms” as a background to my RADICAL IDEA based on how I feel we can be “Predictably Irrational” as taxpaying citizens and public servants; who might  feel that we are underpaid and maybe change our relationship around.

The truth is, the presence of tax pounds into this relationship has stopped us from giving citizens the gift of government. Watch this video to find how money influence our ‘predictably irrational’ behaviours towards public services. It might not be that straight forward, but let’s try to think outside the box 😉

Citizens = Customers = Can act accordingly to behavioral economics

Now why would I apply the idea of gift economy to government you might ask? Well citizens are basically nowadays called customers and they are acting and have expectations as customers, so the rules of behavioral economics will apply and this is the reason why I feel, the idea of “gift government” can possibly work.

Here’s a great excerpt from the MIT Technology Review website that explains this idea of a gift economy can possibly be the solution to the BigSociety. You can also read the actual experiment here in PDF to download.

Why Bankers Would Rather Work for $0.00 Than $500K

Sometimes asking someone to do something for nothing is more powerful than paying them.

In a research paper entitled “Effort for Payment: A Tale of Two Markets,” James Heyman and I that people are willing to help move a couch or perform an experiment just by being asked. Moreover, these individuals feel good about their “gift”. Most interestingly, the experiments show that contrary to standard economic theory, paying a small incremental incentive does not increase effort, but actually lowers it — because meager compensation profanes the gift effect and disincents the giver.

Bringing money into the relationship takes the giver’s work out of “gift” market, and brings it into the “pay-for-effort” market. When it was done for nothing, the protagonist was a “donor.” When small money was on the table, he or she became an underpaid employee. The easiest way to think about this is to imagine if at the end of Thanksgiving dinner you asked your mother-in-law how much you owed her for cooking such a wonderful meal. Would that increase or decrease her effort the next time you came by? (Assuming, of course, she would still invite back you after such an insult.)

In this financial crisis, there has been much discussion about banker’s pay. We think that if President Obama had asked for a group of bankers to take $0, and paid expenses only, it would have brought the discussion back into the gift economy. $500,000 is just low enough to bruise the banker’s egos (after all, they got used to much higher salaries for a long time, higher salaries we can be pretty certain they feel they deserved), but $0 is something to be proud of! In fact, paying these CEOs nothing might remind them about the responsibility they have to the banks they are leading and to the rest of society. The CEO of AIG Ed Liddy is already only taking a one-dollar salary and donating his time to this worthy effort. But his gift is isolated, a drop in the bucket — not part of an overall “corps” of senior financial executives acting in unison to help fix the mess.

Would the best people be willing to work for free? Not all capable bankers could afford it, but many could. We think there would be many willing to pitch in…if asked in the right way. After all, this gift idea was at the core of John F. Kennedy’s brilliant notion, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” By eliminating pay altogether, these leaders would be giving the nation the donation of their time and skill, improving their level of motivation. Instead of accusing them of being greedy and self interested, people could see them as important actors playing key roles in the stability of our entire economy. This in turn would probably encourage more bankers to see the power of a collective gift and the joy they could feel in donating something so important.

As it stands now, the many good people who are trying to improve things for little or no pay are isolated, their effort drowned out by the outrage over bonuses and salaries. Hence we have the Congress and President involved in legislating the level of executive compensation all the way down to its structure and timing! Congress should not be mired in the details of compensation design. Not only are they bad at it, but the beleaguered public — whose median household income is less than 1/10th of $500,000 — is watching the pay ping pong with collective disgust. The knee-jerk reaction to create a confiscatory 90% tax on the AIG bonuses makes the conservatives among us think we are killing capitalism itself.

When individuals commit acts of personal generosity, it sparks a gift culture that replenishes a store of trust — a resource as multiplicative as any Keynesian monetary policy. This sharing is not done in a communist, carving-up-the-spoils manner, but rather in the tradition of bravery and sacrifice for our collective benefit. When those in power act within a gift culture guided by a spirit of generosity for common cause, it creates a tangible trust asset that supports the flow of credit, money, and markets. By focusing on limiting executive pay, President Obama did the political equivalent of asking his mother-in-law how much he owed her for Thanksgiving dinner — and moved the discussion away from social responsibility, and into the pay-for-effort market, where the negotiations for spoils now dominate the discourse.

We think our bold young President has to improve his request. A gift culture — created at the top — will benefit all of us; and, strangely, will also help strengthen the rapacious markets where self-interest reigns supreme. The good news is, it’s not too late.

By John Sviokla and Dan Ariely

No money/power/control, more effort.

Pure generosity solves societal problems

Experiments conducted by Dan Ariely and James Heyman

Experiment 1: Drag circles into square in 5 mins.

Results: People were paid $5 to do experiment dragged 159 circles, people were paid $0.50 to do experiment dragged 101 and people who did experiment based on social request (no payment) dragged 168 circles in 5 mins.

Experiment 2: Lawyers service for retirees

Results: Lawyers asked to help give services to retirees for small fee of $30 an hour. Lawyers said no.

Lawyers asked to give services for free to retirees. Lawyers said yes.

It basically outlines an experiment where people would work harder/put in more effort in exchange for no money and the feel-good factor as compared to those who are paid. In the time where we are dealing with government budget cuts, the absence of money is actually, for me… a great opportunity to tap into the natural human behaviour when the element money or money motivation is not available. And although its difficult to see now but I have never been so pleased that the opportunity of “not having money” is finally here so we can explore the concept of social capital and reciprocity being put to action.

The Burning Man

I take a very good example from “The Burning Man” event which is held every year in Nevada. An event that attracts 48,000 people that has only one rule. No money is to be exchanged! Find out more by listening here

Burning man gift economy

or read about it here http://www.burningman.com/whatisburningman/lectures/viva.html

“There are no rules about how one must behave or express oneself at this event (save the rules that serve to protect the health, safety, and experience of the community at large); rather, it is up to each participant to decide how they will contribute and what they will give to this community. The event takes place on an ancient lakebed, known as the playa. By the time the event is completed and the volunteers leave, sometimes nearly a month after the event has ended, there will be no trace of the city that was, for a short time, the most populous town in the entire county.”


If we were able to have one week or even one weekend, where citizens and government come down and just talk to each other as individuals and together discover the problems we face as citizens and policy shaper without labels on ourselves such as “social worker” or “councillors” and be there as individuals who care about society, who then knows somebody who can help… we might be able to shift and solve problems more rapidly and effectively. I mean its great that we are always doing govcamps to understand how we could do things better, but when have we actually invited real people with real problems in society to join our conversation in similar settings?

Government-citizen relationship currency. Power & Control = Money

Of course, money doesn’t actually work the same way in the government-citizen relationship as it does in the marketplace, but processes do… Red tapes and bureaucracy exists, making it harder for people to reach services which is causing all the frustration in and towards government, which later leads to less trust and confidence in government. This is all about government having control. So control would be the equivalent of money in this relationship. Say if power and control was to be taken out of the relationship for just one weekend, imagine the things we can achieve! If someone tells you he will try his absolute best to help you with a problem you’re having with repairs on your council house or getting your ill mother social care quickly and effectively by going through his agencies address/email outlook to see if he can talk to someone about it… we are already halfway there… Nothing says we care more then when we are willing to letting our guard down and open our minds and hearts to the possibilities that lies ahead when we think outside the box and beyond the red tape.

Charities, hyperlocal networks and even local businesses (to offer jobs or free services) can get involved too and talk to public servants and citizens on how they feel they can exchange their knowledge on specific people in need and give an insight to government employees on how real the problems are out there i.e. homelessness or lack of proper social care. Some problems might not even need government involvement but possibly just a willing ear to listen over a friendly cup of tea and to share experiences and swap contacts.

Public servants are passionate and do care

For the past 5 years I’ve been researching government and talking to A LOT of inspirational and passionate public servants who DO CARE and REALLY WANT TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE. But sometimes the red tape and internal government processes get in the way of making real, quick changes for citizens in need. To do this, we don’t need experts or consultants.

All we need is the will to make things better. And from experience interacting with public servants and working alongside the lovely public servants at Camden Council myself, I am confident that public servants really do want things to work better and are willing to go the extra mile if they were allowed to cut through the red tape.

The beauty of “randomness”

The key to this is, because the people there are going to be so random, it is likely you will talk to someone who doesn’t work in the department you are concerned about but knows somebody who works there or just wants to help and takes that extra effort to find out exactly how to solve a citizen’s problem. When we are confronted with real problems, we try to find a real solution that fits and the thing about this idea of “Gift Government” is, you don’t do it because its YOUR JOB, you do it and see the problem through because YOU CARE.

Benefits to internal processes in government

The other benefit of doing this exercise I feel is getting government staff to better understand how the big picture of how the internal processes flow by talking to colleagues and conveying problems of a specific citizen problem individually in their spare time. Its always great to get fresh eyes to look at a problem from a different perspective because let’s face it, when we are too close to a problem, we hardly see the problem anymore because we’re so used to it all!!!

Its like when they say, “We are kinder to strangers than we are to our own family members!” We basically need a shake up and the “gift government” can be just that!

Let’s all be crazy! 😉

Before you tell me I’m crazy to think of this idea and it is absolutely hopeless, I’d like to ask you to watch this video… hopefully my craziness will be worthwhile! Hopefully at the end of the day, we can all be crazy together! 😀 All I hope is maybe we can fill in the gaps together and get down to basics.

Makes sense?

If this makes any sense to anyone, please send me your feedback on the comments on this blog. Or start a conversation on twitter using the hashtag #giftgov or #giftgovernment. I truly do care about how we as citizen and government can get through these hard times together… and as someone who has always believed and lives by acts of human kindness and just pure enthusiasm, I really hope you can support to make this idea a reality… And maybe Dan Ariely himself might want to have his say in this too? You never know 😉 And it might even be worthwhile doing it every year, like the Burning Man! 🙂

Last but not least… remember…

Releasing control is like having a tight belt on and loosening it a bit just so you can breathe. Don’t be afraid to release once in a while.


I just had a thought to kick this off. Maybe we can start spreading prepaid postcards all over the place i.e. in the tube, in coffee shops, hair salons, bus stops, asking people what makes them sad or happy. By asking a question that is not directed to government, its easier for people to respond honestly and let’s government know the state of mind of citizens in their everyday lives. The total randomness yet meaningful question would spark really interesting insights that I feel is worth trying it out which can be fed into #giftgov.

If it doesn’t make sense, its ok… I’d like to say, at least I tried. I hope this is something we can talk about at #citycampldn and hopefully let the conversation grow until its a reality. Baby steps are good. Let’s see if we can work together to make this happen! I’m open to criticism, so rip away! 🙂

Hope it was useful.

Best wishes,