George Osborne was speaking at Imperial College yesterday in a talk titled A sustainable government; a sustainable economy. This is a big speech which places the Treasury at the centre of a new, green government.

Rather than tackling all of the initiatives he announced in the speech, I wanted to explore in a little detail some of the implications of his proposal to incentivise people to recycle. Specifically, Osborne highlighted an innovation by Windsor and Maidenhead council to reward people for recycling. These rewards, which include M&S vouchers, have increased recycling rates by 30% and Osborne wants to roll this scheme out across the whole country potentially rewarding every family with £130 a year for reducing landfill.

Osborne contrasts his approach of using a carrot with that of the Labour government which he characterises as punishment by taxes. Our recent experience in a deliberation in Kettering included a section on paying for reducing carbon emissions. The results from this part of the deliberation suggest that Osborne is right; people do feel that the current government is punishing them with taxes. However, there is a danger that a false dichotomy could be set-up which could mask a deeper challenge for policy makers about how to promote positive behaviour change. It is clear, for example, that there are instances where ‘punishing’ people with increased taxes, such as the congestion charge, can have an effect. There are also clearly instances, Windsor and Maidenhead being one, where rewarding people can lead to a significant change in behaviour.

I would argue that identifying the best way to get people to change behaviour is not just a simple question of identifying whether it is better to charge people or to reward them. For one thing, the range of areas of public policy where changes in behaviour would have positive impacts is so large that it is hard to see how using state imposed incentives or punishments can go anyway towards reducing the size of the state in the way that all parties talk about.

Secondly, our own experience is that it is not helpful to treat people as either subjects or consumers, to be punished or rewarded accordingly, when making difficult choices about delivering or reforming public services. It is better instead to treat them as citizens; engaging them in a dialogue about their vision for a future good society and the choices that they could make on the road toward that vision. Engaging individuals in this sort of deliberation and dialogue can do two things. It can help ensure that government really understands what issues and choices are important for citizens rather than second guessing. In addition, by internalising the debate, the evidence and the choices, citizens are much more likely to take actions that require behaviour change because they believe it to be important.

Rewarding or punishing people places the state in the position of being the external agent of change. It risks a growth in rather than contraction of the role of government. A state which provides the space, information and structures for dialogue and deliberation will facilitate the kinds of individual action and behaviour change which will lead to deeper and longer lasting changes in the way our society is run. And citizens will be happier, because they are the ones in control.

Image by BinaryApe – from Chorlton’s Big Green Festival