Should We Pay People to Participate?

Do citizens and stakeholders need to be incentivized to participate in government engagement exercises? If governments believe that engagement is necessary both for policymaking effectiveness and perceived legitimacy, we need to ask whether it’s enough to simply offer the opportunity for citizens and stakeholders to participate. Rather, we need to take seriously the challenge of how to create engagement opportunities that people want to engage in for reasons other than narrowly defined political self-interest.

Internet participants have over a decade of experience with receiving something of benefit as a result of their Web involvement (Ritzer and Jurgenson 2010). These benefits include:

  • receiving a service of value from a “free” website in exchange for opening their data to a commercial company (e.g., Google services such as search, email, document management, or mapping; see Anderson 2009; Beresford, Kübler, and Preibusch 2012),
  • obtaining virtual rewards of intrinsic value through a gamified platform (Deterding et al. 2011),
  • getting positive feedback from other participants (Hearn 2010; Scissors, Burke, and Wengrovitz 2016), or even
  • earning monetary compensation for completing a digital action (Paolacci and Chandler 2014).

In the absence of real or virtual rewards or recognition, efforts to engage participants online will face diminishing success in the face of increased competition for attention (Wald, Longo, and Dobell 2016). Without a compelling argument for why citizens and stakeholders should engage, or a clearly perceived benefit from engaging, the impulse to get involved in policymaking will likely fail to translate into participation.

Does this mean that we should pay people to be involved in citizen engagement (Panagopoulos 2012)? Should we offer non-refundable tax credits for participating in engagement exercises? Should you get AirMiles for filling out a government survey?

Maybe not. But governments will need to consider ways of initiating engagement that provide participants with a reason and incentive to engage. If government continues to rely on an argument that people should engage in policy dialogue processes by implicitly referencing civic duty, it will increasingly draw from a very limited pool of hyper-engaged participants at the risk of representativeness and, ultimately, policy effectiveness and perceived legitimacy.


Anderson, C. (2009). Free: The future of a radical price. New York: Random House.

Beresford, A. R., Kübler, D., & Preibusch, S. (2012). Unwillingness to pay for privacy: A field experiment. Economics Letters, 117(1), 25-27.

Deterding, S., Sicart, M., Nacke, L., O’Hara, K., & Dixon, D. (2011, May). Gamification. Using game-design elements in non-gaming contexts. In CHI’11 Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 2425-2428). ACM.

Hearn, A. (2010). Structuring feeling: Web 2.0, online ranking and rating, and the digital ‘reputation’ economy. Ephemera: theory & politics in organisation, 10(3/4), 421-438.

Ritzer, G., & Jurgenson, N. (2010). Production, Consumption, Prosumption The nature of capitalism in the age of the digital ‘prosumer’. Journal of consumer culture, 10(1), 13-36.

Panagopoulos, C. (2012). Extrinsic rewards, intrinsic motivation and voting. The Journal of Politics, 75(1), 266-280.

Paolacci, G., & Chandler, J. (2014). Inside the turk: understanding mechanical turk as a participant pool. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(3), 184-188.

Scissors, L., Burke, M., & Wengrovitz, S. (2016, February). What’s in a Like? Attitudes and behaviors around receiving Likes on Facebook. In Proceedings of the 19th ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work & Social Computing (pp. 1501-1510). ACM.

Wald, D. M., Longo, J., & Dobell, A. R. (2016). Design principles for engaging and retaining virtual citizen scientists. Conservation Biology, 30(3), 562-570.


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