Overcoming Barriers to Volunteer Participation

Real money, real power. This is more than a catchphrase, it is a requirement of participatory budgeting (PB). Of course, PB requires one more key ingredient: real people participating and leading the way.

Participants from the cycle 7 PBNYC vote.
Participants from the cycle 7 PBNYC vote.

PB is driven largely by volunteers who take on the responsibility, commitment, and power of the process — from designing and collecting ideas, to voting, and everything in between. Some volunteers are responsible for turning ideas into concrete proposals that can be put up for a vote. We call these dedicated and integral community members budget delegates

The budget delegate responsibilities are no easy task, though the work is incredibly rewarding and the crux of any good PB process. Without budget delegates, community voices are lost in the PB process because delegates research, assess, and develop project ideas on behalf of the community. In effect, these volunteers are what make PB, PB. So, how can we make sure that PB implementers are able to recruit, retain, and sustain budget delegates?

That’s where the NYC Behavioral Design Center (BDC) at ideas42 comes in — their team applies behavioral science insights to improve programs and policies and solve   complex social problems, including civic engagement. Focused on PBNYC, ideas42 set out to identify and address what behavioral barriers may stand in the way of sustainable community participation.  You can check out their full report here. While the focus was on budget delegate sign-up and participation, the findings can be helpful for other volunteer engagement opportunities in PB, including steering committee members and poll workers. 

The project’s research component included one-on-one interviews with past budget delegates, conversations with city staff, review of participatory budgeting literature and news articles, and actual participation in Cycle 8 vote week and Cycle 9 idea collection. 

The BDC’s findings and behavioral analysis pointed to five key behavioral barriers to participation. Behavioral barriers, as defined by ideas42, are psychological quirks present in all of us and our environment which affect decision making and action, particularly when our actions don’t match our decision making. For example, “we tell ourselves we’ll definitely exercise before work tomorrow, but when the alarm goes off at 6 AM we’re suddenly not so sure. Or we know that it’s a good idea to save more for retirement, and yet we never seem to get around to increasing our pension contributions.”  

When we understand these barriers, we can strategically address them, reshaping the PB process to make it easier for people to participate. And behavioral barriers can be addressed at each key step in a PB cycle — before, during, and after — to ensure participation. While the suggestions below aim to confront broad behavioral barriers to participation, it is important to remember that no two PB processes are the same, because no two communities are exactly the same. Reworking and remixing is essential to PB.

The Five Barriers to Participation:

Mental Models (1)
Ambiguity Aversion Hassle Factors (2, 3)
Loss Aversion and Reactance (4, 5)

The first barrier that keeps budget delegates from continuing to volunteer is false mental models. Mental models are what we believe will happen based on prior knowledge and experience. With PB, this can be shaped by news, outreach materials, personal conversations, or introductory meetings. We use these models to anticipate events, make decisions about whether and how to respond to a person, situation, or opportunity; and to explain how things work. 

In order to avoid false mental models, we must ensure that budget delegates' expectations of PB align with reality.

Before the PB cycle, it is important to avoid unrealistic or unclear expectations. This can be done by making it clear what PB is — and what it is not. We can highlight commonly experienced benefits of participation, beyond funding for community projects, like getting to know your neighbors and gaining valuable skills, by identifying relevant values among volunteers and clearly defining roles and responsibilities of budget delegates.

During the PB cycle, it is essential to adapt PB to align with budget delegate expectations of the PB process. In NYC, budget delegates expressed disappointment that they couldn’t work with more creative and innovative project ideas. This could be addressed by expanding PB to expense funding for programs and services, and finding alternative sources of funding for worthy projects that do not make it to the ballot or get funded through the PB vote.

After the cycle it is important to keep delegates in the loop and aware of long project implementation processes by providing accurate updates on the status of winning projects. Project implementation can sometimes take a long time, so strategies to keep delegates--and all participants--informed of progress like project rackers and update emails are key to overcoming this barrier and ensuring sustainable PB.

Another barrier to participation is ambiguity aversion, the tendency to favor the known over the unknown and avoid the latter. This occurs when participants are unclear about likely outcomes and lack enough information to make an informed decision. It can stem from a lack of clarity surrounding delegates’ roles, responsibilities, or expected time commitment. 

A behavioral barrier which goes hand-in-hand with ambiguity is hassle factors. These are seemingly small inconveniences or obstacles that derail action. Because PB is a complex process which requires significant planning and coordination, it is important to make it as accessible, simple, and hassle-free as possible for participants. 

How do we minimize ambiguity and hassles to participation?

Before the PB cycle, we should make it easy to get information. This includes making sure people know how to get involved and clearly defining roles and anticipated time commitment levels. Also, make it as easy as possible for people to sign up or learn more! Provide direct emails and phone numbers for interested people to follow-up - and make sure staff are prepared to answer questions.

During the PB cycle, make it as easy as possible for participants to attend meetings. This can be done by meeting in accessible locations, scheduling based on volunteer availability, and sending helpful reminders and follow-up notes. We should likewise make it easy for volunteers to execute all the pieces of the PB process, like submitting project proposals, and make sure instructions are easy to find. 

After the PB cycle, to keep participants in the loop and excited about PB, we want to provide updates about cycle outcomes via multiple communication channels. This means investing in a functional project tracking tool. In fact, in NYC, PB exposed a lack of transparency in the City’s broader capital funding process and led to a solution in the form of an advanced tracking tool! Check out the story here.

The final two behavioral barriers are loss aversion and reactance. Loss aversion occurs because losses are felt more than gains. When a project developed by a volunteer doesn’t end up on the ballot (for any number of reasons), the feeling associated with this loss can be so strong, it can lead them to drop out and/or decide against participating in the future.. 

Reactance is frustration or anger associated with feeling constrained or limited. Participants’ expectations of control over the process — for instance, if the participant believes they will be able to get their project idea on the ballot feel disappointment when that doesn’t happen — can lead to frustration and then non-participation. Feelings of loss and reactance may manifest most strongly after the PB Cycle. 

How do we overcome loss aversion and reactance?

Before and during the PB Cycle it’s important to set and affirm accurate expectations to prevent feelings of  loss and reactance later on. It’s also valuable to share delegates’ positive experiences, learnings, and other expressed benefits throughout the process.

After the PB Cycle, we can provide a small, guaranteed reward for participants, such as certificates of achievement and end-of-cycle celebrations. It is also essential to highlight opportunities to move forward with additional projects through other funding streams.  

Working to overcome these barriers will be an ongoing process, much like the development of PB. But the results — thriving communities built with and for the people most impacted by decisions — are well worth a deeper dive. 

What has worked to support and increase volunteer participation in your community's PB process? We want to hear from you! 

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