Public Sector Services Need Citizens’ Input but also Reliable and Universal Systems


Two Estonian researchers, Piret Tõnurist and Laidi Surva, both from Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance, Tallinn University of Technology, explored the question of volunteering in Estonia. Their article Is Volunteering Always Voluntary? Between Compulsion and Coercion in Co-production was published in Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations.[1]

Tõnurist and Surva analysed three services in Estonia where volunteer input is used: volunteer firefighters, assistant police officers and volunteer work service for the unemployed. “Our research indicates that governments operate on the continuum of compulsion—the internal need to volunteer—,and coercion—external incentives—when they motivate citizens to co-produce. However, there are limits to the extent that citizens’ input can be used in providing public services,” Tõnurist said.

Internal and External Motivators

Tõnurist explained that governments use intrinsic or extrinsic awards to get citizens to co-produce, i.e., the warm glow of satisfaction from doing enjoyable work, or receiving something in return for participating. She added that in either case, the motivation to keep volunteering is very different. “Monetary rewards do not work with people who feel the internal compulsion to volunteer (e.g., most volunteer firefighters), while they might motivate others (people with a more utilitarian focus) for short periods, e.g. the unemployed,” she said.

There is little evidence that those participating in the volunteer work service for the unemployed in Estonia have continued volunteering after the service ended. “In essence, volunteering was used as a substitute for other social services to develop participants’ skills,” Tõnurist said. According to her, this gives rise to the question whether we can actually talk about volunteerism in this case. Seeing as the unemployed are coerced, in a way, to volunteer, the core principle of free will may have been affected.

Furthermore, continuously increasing demands, setting obligations on intrinsically motivated people does not work either. “For example, volunteer firefighters bear high responsibility and continue their work due to their responsibility to the community under heavy strain in many cases. An additional problem related to this is that they can easily burn out,” Tõnurist explained.

In addition, volunteer commandos do not have the same machinery, investments, manning etc. across the country. “Hence, we can question the reliability of the state’s strategy in increasing the dependence on volunteer commandos. Good people are doing good work but we should not forget the broader concerns of universality and reliability that public safety depends on,” Tõnurist said. Thus, the results show that there is both a positive and negative side to relying heavily on co-production both for citizens and the state.

Important Knowledge for Policy Design

The question of citizens’ motivation for volunteering is essential in any matter where governments are discussing co-producing public services with citizens. “I think our results are helpful in planning citizens’ participation in service delivery across different policy areas,” Tõnurist said. “Specifically, motivated citizens assign themselves to areas with high or low government engagement, depending on what motivates them to volunteer. Furthermore, our results show that in some areas, co-production may not be the most reliable long-term solution for service delivery.”

In the next stages of the research, Tõnurist and Surva endeavour to look at the topic within different service contexts and aim to identify variables and characteristics that influence the relationship between citizens and the state. For example, they have worked on the issue of co-production and citizen motivation in connection to the alternative probation system for ex-prisoners in Estonia. This work will be published soon in the International Journal of Public Administration. In addition, there are plans to look into the possibility of co-production in fragile or transition states where the government structures are either very complex or in constant reform.

[1]The full text of the article is available here:

This article was funded by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.

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