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How Not to Increase Participation in Local Government: The Advantages of Experiments When Testing Policy Interventions

May 2015

Kevin Arceneaux, Daniel M. Butler


This experiment tests different mechanisms to increase public participation in municipal committees. By randomly assigning citizens into three distinct groups (a control group plus two separate treatments), researchers determined what effect different incentives had on willingness to participate in local government. In one treatment group they made clear to citizens that participation in local government would garner them public recognition (e.g. listing on the government website). In the second treatment group they mention that all volunteers will be afforded training programs to make them a more effective leader. The experiment found that willingness to volunteer was not statistically affected by offering social recognition. Additionally, mentioning volunteer programs significantly lowered probability of volunteering, especially among poorer citizens.

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Policy Implications

The study notes that citizen participation in local government provides valuable insight on issues and is an important source of public opinion to elected officials. Any policy attempt to increase participation on these volunteer committees could have deep-reaching effects on the policies pursued by the elected government.

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