News and Comment

The collective action problem: are micro responses an acceptable solution? Part One

Tuesday 5 November 2013


In the first of a two-part series, Project Manager David Hughes, from OPM’s sister organisation Dialogue by Design, considers ‘the collective action problem’ in relation to consultations.

Do public consultations suffer from a collective action problem?

When planning a consultation a large part of the work we do in Dialogue by Design revolves around making it more accessible; from ensuring a variety of response methods such as online, postal, and face-to-face, to properly publicising the consultation and making the material easy to understand.

The reasoning behind this in part stems from an attempt to limit the impact of what is known as the collective action problem. Put simply the collective action problem implies that the greater the personal gain someone is likely to obtain from a process, the greater their motivation for taking part in that process, and hence those with small interest in a project may not participate.

Besides from the benefit gained on an individual level, small interest groups can often have a greater influence on a consultation than their size would warrant. Small groups are quite likely to find it easier to coordinate and present a unified voice; they may already know each other as a result of their common interest. They may also obtain a collective benefit of participation in the form of improved community relations, further encouraging participation.

Of course this is perfectly natural and would appear of little concern at first, but what this also implies is that there may be a large number of people who have an interest in a process but for whom the benefits of participating do not match the associated costs, be they financial costs or the value of people’s time. In fact it is quite possible that the cumulative benefit to this group may even outweigh that of those participating.

Framed in light of the collective action problem, campaign responses and pre-printed post cards that take a lot of the work out of replying to a consultation can be seen as a good way to engage with those with a smaller yet important stake in the process.