Shedding some light on democracy

Nathan Smith
Insights Newsletter
11 September, 2020

Back in April, the Government promised $50 million to support a flagging media sector. It’s hard to make a buck online, but the real problem was getting people to pay attention to news.

It turns out New Zealand’s entire democratic system faces the same problem. The good news is that fixing both the media and upping the level of civics knowledge can be solved with one policy change.

As The New Zealand Initiative shows in its new report, Democracy in the Dark, Kiwis struggle to answer basic civics questions. With a general election around the corner, it is sobering to read how little is known about the country’s cherished institutions.

But with a bit of perpendicular thinking, voters could be incentivised to follow what goes on in Wellington.

The report is sceptical of whether more civics education at school would help. After all, how much of third form calculus does an adult remember? But $50m is a hefty sum no matter how good one is at maths. It’s an arbitrary figure, of course, but it helps frame the real problem: incentives.

What if Elections New Zealand paired $50m with a randomly dialled call to a New Zealand phone number? It would ask one or two questions to the person on the other end of the line about the week’s news headlines or queries from a set of basic civics questions.

The agency would continue dialling numbers until someone answers correctly. That person would win $10,000, immediately.

Now we have your attention.

The base annual cost of this scheme would be about $3.65m. Of course, a team would need to be hired as well, among other administrative costs. But even if the scheme reaches $4m per annum, the Government could run it for 12 years on a stipend of $50m. A bargain!

Little else would need to change because the media already covers key political and civic stories as part of its role. And if the potential prize for following the latest news could buy a diligent Kiwi a second car, they might calculate that a subscription to the NZ Herald or the NBR is worth it.

And just like that, fresh thinking solves two critical problems: boosting civics knowledge and return people’s attention to important journalism. Chances are it would also encourage newspapers to stop writing cat stories, too.

That’s the thing about incentives: you just have to ask the right question.


Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates