Citizen Participation in Local Government: The Use of Incentives and Rewards

By Buckwalter, Doyle; Persons, Robert et al. | Public Management, September 1993 | Go to article overview

Citizen Participation in Local Government: The Use of Incentives and Rewards


Buckwalter, Doyle, Persons, Robert, Wright, Norman, Public Management


When an increase in people's needs for public services... occurs at the same time that governments find it necessary to reduce services due to fiscal constraints, the absolute necessity of volunteer service becomes obvious.

National Civic Review January 1983

Alexis de Tocqueville noted that the "health of a democratic society may be measured by the quality of functions by private citizens."[1] There is an implied assumption that, in establishing a democratic government, many services or community actions must be cooperative efforts between citizen and government, i.e., that citizens are "co-producers." It is assumed, for example, that citizens will pick up their litter in the park; participate in a neighborhood watch; maintain the quality of their own property; teach children to obey laws; prevent the destruction of public property; prevent graffiti; help educate children at home; and avoid flushing damaging materials. Beyond this expected "self-duty," the "public-regarding" ethos needs addressing.

It has been estimated that in 1987, some 80 million adults gave approximately 14.9 billion hours of service at a dollar value of $149.8 billion.[2] Based on a 1988 ICMA survey, volunteer participation in cities and counties ranked second only to the use of contracting in number of service deliveries and localities' reliance on them.

From ancient Greece to the present, officials have attempted to honor, recognize, or otherwise show appreciation for services rendered by presenting some token rewards. This is done to encourage the involvement of a larger proportion than the typical 1 percent, or less, of citizens who participate. Additionally, in recent years, many local governments have begun using incentives to encourage attendance, committee service, and participation in specific programs and activities, and to achieve effectiveness in programs. A combination of incentives and rewards has emerged. The purpose of this article is not to provide a boiler-plate approach to volunteerism but to offer information on current, operating incentive/reward programs.

Most frequently, volunteerism has relied on the spirit of altruism. Yet, probably both intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors are involved in a decision to become engaged in volunteer activities. Because there are competing calls on a citizen's time and resources, the governmental entity may need to market some incentives for that participation.

Acknowledging the urgent need for more volunteerism to aid communities, a study has been performed to determine the extent and mix of incentives and rewards in current use across the nation. In 1992, a random, population-interval sample of some 1,200 ICMA-recognized communities was conducted. A total of 425 questionnaires (35 percent) were returned, revealing the following data on the use of incentives:

Program                     Percentage of
Areas                       Governments
                            Using Incentives(*)

Volunteer services (library, other services) 31.0%

Activities (sports,

programs, parades, etc.)           30.0%
Citizen surveys                    13.6%

Open houses (service displays, information) 13.8%

Meetings (councils,

hearings, etc.)                     7.1%
Nonresponsive                       4.5%

(*) Does not total 100 percent due to a few incomplete questionnaires.

While great confidence in the statistical precision of the responses may be unwarranted because of differing perceptions among officials of what constitutes an incentive, the general trend should not be overlooked. The results suggest that the use of incentives for citizen participation in local government is not widespread. Further, the results of the survey also show significant correlation between locality size and incentive use in only one of the categories - activities (i. …

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