Bypassing the ‘hard-to-avoids’

Via Mick Phythian, I’ve just seen this (shorter version: people don’t use interactive services because it undervalues their time, ‘valuing it at zero’- face-to-face is a more reliable ideal, and the utility calculation has to be positive before people will take online options. If buying something online saves you £20 then you may take the risk accordingly)

So people using the Internet for online transactions will only put the time in if it’s worthwhile to them, is this true for people going online to ‘have their say’? If they get some utility out of it (be it lower taxes / regulatory burdens or a sense of self-satisfaction in doing the right thing)? If we apply this to e-participation, the only conclusion that we can draw is that it will tend towards creating an auction house where policy is driven either by self-interest of self-satisfaction. Or, put another way, the dictatorship of the greedy and the smug.

As the analysis of people doing e-transactions with local government, we should surely apply an understanding of utility to all interactions with government. It will happen when people get something out of it. More importantly, they apply the same ‘opportunity cost’ calculation to it as they would to anything else. Do I need to be doing something else with my time?

Of course, this makes a massive case for investment in ‘usability’ (and going beyond usability – almost into seduction) – making the online experience a compelling and pleasurable one. Compelling, not compulsory, as David Barrie puts it here. The ‘Nudge‘ argument, if you like? But it also makes the case for investment of time and energy in ways of getting people to make quick light responses on issues where they care very slightly rather than strongly.

Is there a case for using mobile phones to do surveys – sending people text messages and saying ‘answer our five questions and we’ll refund £2 from your council tax.’ This will incentivise people who….

  • don’t have access to a computer, sufficient bandwidth or a local authority that could design a usable interface if their lives depended upon it
  • don’t care about specific issues enough to sit through a clunky consultation questionnaire online
  • think that saving £2 would make a slight difference to their lives

In other words, exactly the opposite kind of people who normally get involved in consultations in order to provide responses that are unrepresentative (and therefore, often worthless). If – instead of valuing people’s time at £0, we value it at £2 (or whatever figure finds the right equilibrium), we will get a more representative sample of collective wisdom.

I’ve been researching mobile phone multi-question survey platforms and I’d be interested to see if any local authority and government body would consider this approach instead of the usual ‘come to our website and Have Your Say’?

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