BD Giving Notes #50 – Paying people for participation? Sounds like Greek to me.

Participation makes a big difference to those of us who have the privilege of supporting communities in their decision-making.

Rather than a contemporary contentious concern, the idea of paying people to participate in society is older than you might think, as Cameron Bray, Head of Learning and Participation explores.

I’ve written previously about why we think it is important to pay people for their time. It is probably the most common question we get about our work after being asked why we are participatory at all. As I write this, I’ve just finished facilitating a decision-making process for another organisation. At the end, when they mentioned putting in your payment forms many of the attendees were surprised as they hadn’t really understood that part of the invitation. Many were unsure if this was per meeting or overall, for themselves or for the organisation they worked for (if they did work for an organisation). It felt too good to be true.

If they were shocked, then the interview attendees for our new Programme Officer roles were fully electrocuted by being told we were paying them to attend the group interview. We offered this with no caveats, no receipts requested and no metric measured beyond attendance. The logic for offering payment was that with only two positions available, we were taking up 12 other people’s time. We needed those 12 other people to run a group interview process because what we were assessing was how well people were able to participate and share power, two core aspects of the role. 

Whether the two things are linked, it would be impossible to say now but we had what was one of the most energising interview processes I have been involved in. Interestingly, one person turned down the interview invitation – he had already accepted a job offer that morning but admitted that while the money was tempting, he did not think it was right to take advantage of (what he felt to be) our generosity. Imagine that, trusting behaviour seeding vulnerability. It’ll never catch on.

Gaming the system

This is all a very long way to say that, no matter how radical and progressive we may like to think of ourselves in this regard, the ancient Greeks beat us to it by a few millennia. Inspiration comes from the most varied places if we open ourselves up to it – in my case it was the game Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, in which you play an assassin during the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) between Athens and Sparta.

Of course, the huge caveat to the below is that the pool of people allowed to take part in democracy was limited. Though it varied slightly across Greece and time, the only people who tended to be afforded these rights were free adult men who had completed military service to that particular city-state. In that regard at least, BD Giving is outperforming the ancient Greeks.

It was through playing the game that I learned that civic participation in some city-states was paid for by the government in order to ensure more people could participate in how the city was run. It included taking part in jury service and the political assembly, and even saw people chosen randomly to hold official positions and paid to ensure they could live and fulfill their duties.

The exact context for learning this was a reference to a coup in 411 BCE that replaced Athenian democracy with an oligarchy, which, among other things, explicitly outlawed paying people for participation. The argument from the coup leaders was that only the richest had the means to give up their time to run Athens, especially during a time of war when everything was more expensive. Thank Zeus times have changed, eh?

Learning from experience

The oligarchs knew exactly what they were doing when they prohibited these payments, and it is unsurprising that the law was overturned following their defeat. What is also unsurprising is that the amount of money people needed to be paid increased as time went on and the incentive needed to increase. That mirrors our experience over the last four years – when we started on this journey, it was before the pandemic and cost of living crisis had started to bite. We have had to raise the amount we pay people, or reduce the amount of their time we take up. 

Like the Greeks of old though, we see democracy as a living system that requires constant participation and support to ensure that participation happens. Paying people keeps that system energised and dynamic, forcing it to respond to a wider range of voices. I know that the Greeks are not the only historical examples of this but they are the oldest example that I am aware of – I am always happy to learn more and have my assumptions burst so do let me know of any others.

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