This week, we were invited by Graham Allen MP,  Chair of the Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee to give a presentation to members of the House of Commons on The New Citizenship Project’s thinking and its impact on voter participation. Although this wasn’t our usual environment,  (we’re more used to creating stuff than writing reports!), we were delighted to have been given such a great opportunity to address the issue of participation from a fresh angle with some of those who have responsibility for reforming the system. A fascinating discussion followed the presentation. So we’ve documented it below.  Let us know what you think!

Our angle of approach to this question is perhaps best introduced through the lens of the Hungarian mathematician George Polya. Polya’s great contribution to mathematics and to the world more broadly was his 1945 book How To Solve It, still in widespread educational use today and a great read. For our purposes, the critical point is what’s become known as the inventor’s paradox, which, broadly stated, says this: “If you can’t solve a problem, look for the problem behind it.” The mathematical idea is that there may be underlying patterns in which your problem is embedded – and it is in these patterns that a solution may lie.

We think that’s what’s going on with voter participation. We think most people are looking at this as a behaviour change challenge, and implicitly applying the intuitive behaviour change equation: behaviour equals motivation over effort. Unfortunately, we think this conventional approach – largely focused around making it easier or more personally desirable to vote – will have very limited impact, and might even be counter productive.

Instead, we think we need to look up, and see the bigger problem around this.

So here’s what we think is going on.


Firstly, instead of merely focusing on voting, let’s recognise that broader political participation – of which the act of voting is one part – is also a problem. Political party membership, the number of people willing to take a place on councils, and so on. We’re deliberately holding to one side at the moment people participating through structures like 38degrees or change.org – we’ll come back to that. The core measures, of people actually wanting to play a role themselves in the existing structures of democracy, are in decline.

But that itself, we would argue, is also only part of the issue. Above the collective set of acts of participation sits the idea of civic identity – the identity construct of the individual as participating citizen, actively playing a role in shaping the context of her own life. And this is where we think things get interesting, because we see a load of evidence that this whole identity construct is being choked out.

And we think the thing that’s choking it out is this: Consumer Identity.

Now there’s a really important distinction to make here, because this isn’t about anti-capitalism. Indeed, we’re a profit-making business ourselves. And we all consume. I’m consuming air right now. But as a ream of studies from social psychology show, there is a vital difference between noun and verb. I can consume, but not be A Consumer.   Indeed, this is an area that perhaps deserves more attention from your inquiry – there have been several studies exploring the noun/verb distinction in voting. When people say ‘I vote’, they are reasonably likely to vote; when they say ‘I am a voter’, they are MUCH more likely to. The power of the noun is that it becomes an identity construct, and brings with it certain attitudes, values and behaviours.

And this is the critical point. We are seeing, and generating ourselves, an increasing body of evidence that the dominance of the Consumer identity is directly undermining the cause of encouraging political participation.

The next example comes from our own research in partnership with YouGov, a very simple priming study based on omnibus questionnaire with 3000 people, nationally representative. All three groups were asked two questions: to what extent do you think it’s important to participate actively in society, and to what extent do you think it’s important to participate actively in your local community?

But the sample was split into three. One group of 1000, the control, were only asked these two questions. A second group, before they saw these questions, were asked to respond to the statement, ‘To what extent do you agree that everyone is born equal?’ – a statement designed in collaboration with a social psychologist to prime a civic identity. And finally, the third group, before they saw the participation questions, were asked a consumer prime question: ‘To what extent do you agree that it’s important to find brands that fit your personality?’


These were the results. Controlling for the extent to which people agreed with the priming statements, merely being exposed to them had a significant effect on their response to the participation questions. This is an astounding result. Merely being shown the statement about brands made people rate the importance of participation significantly lower.

This sort of result has been replicated in other studies. In one, a survey of social attitudes, the sample was split in two. For half, the front cover said Consumer Response Study; for the other half it said Citizen Response Study. Levels of social motivation were significantly lower on the Consumer Response Study. Others have got study participants to walk along a commercial or residential street to the research facility, and found a similar impact.

Now think what happens when we are exposed to something like 3000 commercial messages a day, all with the underlying message ‘You are a Consumer’; when we report Consumer Confidence as a key measure of the success of our society; and so on. These results would suggest that when we do this we are effectively telling people not to vote – at an identity level, we are telling ourselves that we are Consumers not Citizens; at the level of general motivation, we are undermining our natural drive to participate.

At the specific, we are effectively telling ourselves not to vote.

We know intuitively that this story of the individual is dominant in our society, but here’s a little amateur data gathering to back up the intuition. Firstly, a beautifully horrible anecdotal example – the Young Consumer Of The Year Award, a national, government-funded schools’ competition. You might want to have a look at that one.


Second, a slightly more data-driven approach. This is based on searching for mentions of the words ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’ through books and newspaper articles over the last century. You can see very clear hints of an inverse relationship between the two, and the dominance of the idea of the consumer in recent decades.


Enough Consumer bashing though. Because there is a reason why this idea is so appealing and so powerful. And I think we can best understand by going back to the year 1984.

1984 was the year that Apple launched the Mac, introducing choice to the computer market, and offering a more creative alternative to plain old IBM. It was the year that Virgin Atlantic took on the national carriers, offering flights to New York for £99. It was the year that Anita Roddick’s Body Shop floated on the London Stock Exchange, and the year of the LA Olympics, the first to be fully funded by corporate sponsors. It was the year Madonna released Material Girl and Bob Geldof launched Band Aid.

In 1984, the idea of the Consumer seemed like something of a golden dream. Not only could we make loadsamoney as individuals, but we could stimulate entrepreneurship and creativity, and we could solve the world’s biggest problems – from poverty to the environment – in the process.


This is how we understand it. We think there’s an evolution in the role of the individual in society, and we think that the emergence of the Consumer is entirely understandable and even laudable as a liberating shift from what came before. This is why Apple and Virgin are such significant brands – they are the transatlantic emblems of rejecting a world where there is no choice, where you get what you are given and that’s it. That’s what we see as the idea of the Subject – you get what you’re given. The Consumer, by contrast, has freedom to choose between options, and the right to complain – a massively liberating shift.

So our story is not that the Consumer is somehow an unmitigated evil. It was arguably the right move at the time. But now we have a problem. The idea of the Consumer has become too dominant, the golden promise has not been fulfilled, and the problems have started to outweigh the solutions.

Fortunately, at exactly the same time, we see a new possibility emerging – what we call the New Citizen, and for whom we design everything that we do. If as Subjects we got what we were given, and as Consumers we could choose between options, as New Citizens we can actually participate in shaping the choices we are offered.

This is driven by the coming of age of the internet as the dominant medium of society, and is best explained by reference to 1960s philosopher Marshall Mcluhan’s famous idea that “The medium is the message” – that the dominant medium of a society shapes the structure of that society. In a society dominated by radio and then television, we became consumers – these are one-to-many media, full of choice, but not essentially interactive. The internet, by contrast, is a many-to-many medium, and has the potential to help us shape a many-to-many society.


In a way, we are seeing brands leading this. The core idea of Airbnb is to allow people to share their spare rooms with each other in a many-to-many form rather than go through the centralised hub of the one-to-many hotel industry. In four years, it has become the world’s biggest hotel chain, with 690,000 rooms in 192 countries. It took Hilton more than 90 years to get to 600,000 rooms in 80 countries. The Amazon Kindle has effectively created the phenomenon of self-publishing, allowing readers and authors to come into direct connection. 25 of the 100 bestselling Kindle books in the US in 2012 were self-published. And this is not just the new kids. B&Q are getting in on this act, setting up Street Club to facilitate a many-to-many sharing of tools and expertise, rather than owning a one-to-many relationship as a retailer.

Of course, we choose Airbnb and Amazon deliberately – these are not two of the best behaved organisations in the world, and with their attitude to tax, workers’ rights, and so on are hardly the most distributive of organisations. This makes an important point. The internet brings a potential, but it can easily be co-opted, especially if we go into it orientating ourselves as Consumers. We will give our data away for free in return for treats, and restrict the participatory potential of this moment to involving people in choosing the colour of our trainers, not choosing the shape of our society.


That’s why this is stuff we’re much more excited about. Across the world, political entrepreneurs are harnessing the deliberative, creative potential of this medium to experiment with many-to-many, participatory models of politics. What all of these have in common – from the Open Ministry in Finland to secondgov in the US to Kiwi startup Loomio – is that they’re all about enabling deliberation and co-creation of policy. They’re harnessing the potential of the internet to bring politics into the age of the New Citizen, and haul it out of the age of the Consumer, where voting has become the maximum – not the minimum – that we aspire to.

The problem, though, is that public service, and mainstream politics within it, is way behind the game – and is actually only just catching up with the shift from Subject to Consumer.


The BBC and the NHS are probably the most important examples. We think they’re stuck at the moment because they have come from a Subject mentality. Think about it – the British Broadcasting Corporation. Inform, educate, entertain. What’s embedded in there is an idea of ‘we know best’. But in trying to shift their focus to the Consumer, to make ‘audiences’ the centre, to make it ‘your BBC’ – this is a trap that leads the BBC away from the true opportunity, which is to do what Airbnb have done, and become a platform and facilitator for a many-to-many creation and curation of British culture.

I’ll come back to Healthwatch in a moment, but first to explain why we’ve included Change.org, 38degrees, and theyworkforyou here too. It’s because as we see it, while these initiatives are definitely opening up new ground, and at their best are indeed a form of genuine participation, they may be in danger of getting stuck in the Consumer frame. To put them in our typology, they’re trying to get politics out of Subject and into Consumer, which can give the impression that they are only about the right to complain. We hope that as these organisations grow, we’ll see them opening up their space as a place for listening and deliberating as a community, not just for being served as an individual. We also worry that Healthwatch represents the same thing:

Watch: Am I a consumer of health and social care? 

Having watched that, can we just ask ourselves a question? Is this really the aspiration? That we treat doctors as service providers? Is that the relationship we want? In an age where we really need to move to a system where people take responsibility for their own health, and see themselves as participants in the health system rather than Consumers of it, is it an approach we can afford – financially or otherwise?

Should we not be trying to skip that entire phase?

We would argue that skipping that entire phase is exactly what we have to do. To step briefly to the global context, we can see this playing out around the world. This image was on the wall of a building in Davos at the World Economic Forum this year. If India do go down this path, what do you think the climate change impacts will be, to name just one area?


But if this is the problem, what can you and we do about it?

We’re working on it in lots of different ways, a process we kicked off by bringing together a group of unusual suspects earlier this year to discuss this challenge – from social entrepreneurs like Bite The Ballot to brands like Innocent to cultural institutions like the Tate. DOWNLOAD THAT REPORT HERE.

But here are four really specific – if big and challenging – suggestions for where to start.

First, think about the fact that advertising is now almost everywhere. If we are to become New Citizens, we have to stop telling ourselves we’re Consumers constantly. Yet at the moment, we’re going in exactly the opposite direction. As a prominent advertising CEO put it at a couple of years ago, “We don’t know where the consumer is going to be any more, so we have to be everywhere. Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.” In the age of big data, smartphones, smart watches, smart glasses and more, this could easily mean literally everywhere. Surely we must draw a line. Restrictions on ads in public space have not damaged advertising – in cities where bans on outdoor advertising have come in, for example, the market has simply redistributed. But putting limits on advertising will create vitally needed cognitive space. We could do worse than start with childhood – after all, if we are not prepared to give children of 6 the vote and treat them as Citizens, why are we prepared to advertise to them and tell them they are Consumers?

Second, an intervention we’ve shorthanded with the working title of Citizen Sundays. We are exploring the idea of creating facilitated deliberation sessions on a weekly basis, and looking for the partners who could make it happen. The evidence from experiments such as those carried out by Bite The Ballot suggest that people do genuinely enjoy and get involved in debate and participation if you find a way to frame those opportunities. But the root idea is about creating the spaces, in small but obviously scaleable ways. The framing of Citizen Sundays is inspired by the Sunday Assembly, the so-called atheist church that started just two years ago and now has over 100 regular gatherings in countries all over the world.

Third, we think the idea of coming of age is a powerful intervention point. Every society before western modernity has had some equivalent of this, particularly for young men – and the idea was that this is the moment when you put yourself at the service of your community, matching your individualism to the wider context. We think the New Citizenship needs a new kind of coming of age, one that reflects that this is a higher freedom, an integration of identity not a sacrifice of individuality. We’re working with several cultural institutions to explore this – but one really simple idea is this. If every 100 year old gets a telegram from the Queen, why shouldn’t every 18 year old, congratulating them on becoming a full Citizen with the right to vote?

Fourth, finally, and most importantly, we’d ask you to do this: please appeal to the Citizen not just the Consumer. Remember the evidence we’ve shown, and think over the possibility that when you appeal to people as Consumers, you are effectively telling them not to vote. Instead, tap into the advice of one of the great marketing brains in history, Henry Ford, who once said, “If I gave people what they wanted, I would have made a faster horse.” Have the bravery to give people what they don’t know they want. Inspire people’s imagination with what’s possible for us as Citizens, not just by direct, personal, and usually financial appeals, as these two clips show.



3 thoughts on “Telling ourselves not to vote

  1. Extremely interesting! The way consumer roles tend to suppress the citizen role has a lot of traction. We can see this as we look about. I will recommend this article.

  2. I have just enjoyed Jon Alexander speaking on Radio Four Thought tonight . This thinking is very exciting. Our true nature is to be citizens; we see that nature shining through when we have emergencies ,when we volunteer and when we fundraise. We could be citizens always and consumers sometimes rather than what we have at the moment which seems to be the other way around.
    For a very interesting example of a national citizen conversation take a look at what Singapore did in 2012. “Our Singapore Conversation” 660 dialogue sessions involving more than 47,000 people…..

  3. Pingback: If no one votes, is democracy dead? | The New Citizenship Project Blog

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