Incentives and thank you payments for taking part

Many of the people we come across when we are running projects, training events or seminars ask us whether or not they should pay people incentives (or thank you payments as some prefer to call it) for taking part.  This always starts an interesting debate with some against and most for.  Of particular interest is the inconsistency across organisations, with some people being told by their managers that they are not allowed to do this, but others ultimately working for the same organisation being told they can.

Overall, in our experience it is often a small  minority of people, who have an issue with paying incentives and it is common practice across many sectors in public services to do so now.

We wish people would take part for nothing but this just does not happen.  We can blame it on consumerism, fractured communities, lack of civic capital, lack of feedback from previous engagement, so on and so forth but the fact of the matter is that, practically, if you want to engage outside of the 5% of people who are likely to come to a focus group or deliberative event without them,  then incentives work.

So we’ve prepared a statement that you may or may not agree with….

A Statement on Paying Incentives for People to Take Part In Consultation and Public Engagement

There are several reasons why people are offered incentives for taking part:

  • It covers people’s costs.  These can be varied from the obvious things like taxis and child care to the broader opportunity costs of taking part – like time off work, missing Coronation Street, The X factor, The Archers and so forth.  These are all barriers to participation and opportunity costs that a financial incentive will address.
  • It tends to make participation more inclusive.  The practical truth is that if it is your objective to run engagement and consultation events (focus groups, workshops, etc.) that include a more representative mix of the population, or are targeted at hard to reach groups, then paying incentives will help to achieve this.
  • Some people take part for civic pride but many do not see the point.  Incentives help to get the disinterested many to take part. They also help to get people involved who normally may not be able to afford to.
  • Because consultation and engagement can be perceived to be tokenistic, some people do not see the value of getting involved. Incentives can counter this by tipping them into doing so and then, once they are engaged, demonstrating that it is worthwhile taking part (and not just for the incentive)
  • People are experts in consuming (public) services so why should we expect them to spend time with us, for nothing, giving us insight into how we can improve what we do.
  • The payment of incentives is now common across public service providers.

There are also several reasons why organisations do not like paying incentives;

  • People should participate because it is their civic duty
  • It may be perceived as a bribe to influence what they say

To a degree, these can be valid reasons for not paying incentives so it is important to be clear why you choose to pay incentives sometimes.  I.e. that your target audience is unlikely to take part purely  for reasons of civic duty so an incentive makes engagement more inclusive; that incentives are not seen to be a bribe by making sure consultation is also transparent; and that people who are offered incentives contribute effectively and therefore provide value for money.

Also people who are already involved for nothing understand why sometimes it is necessary to offer an incentive payment.

The Institute’s View

The Consultation Institute have provided some unofficial guidance, which also helps.  This being that incentives should be paid if it is important to get the right balance of people involved And that the amount and the way that any incentive is paid cannot be construed to influence what they say.

Overall recommendations

Incentives are an effective and established way of making engagement more inclusive and encouraging harder to reach people to get involved.

At the same time we should remember that there are some people who will not be encouraged to take part by incentives, to them the experience of consultation is more important; that it makes a difference and is conducted well.   So incentives should not be the only mechanism for encouraging people to take part.  They should also be used in conjunction with other effective recruitment methods e.g. good publicity, effective dialogue methods, targeted recruitment,feedback, and demonstrating overall that people’s involvement matters and makes a difference.

Overall incentives should be paid if it is important to get people involved who would not normally – the majority of the population.

Comments more than welcome!


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