That was the recurring theme at a couple of events during FinCap Week in mid-November. Getting people to do what’s best for them is the holy grail for financial capability enthusiasts, as it is for every other social policy maker – from health and education to civil society and the environment.
They say you can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. But with FinCap, it's hard to lead the nag anywhere. And explaining it's drink now or go thirsty doesn't always work either. It's a twin challenge of diminishing returns firstly just to get excluded people to engage and secondly getting as many of them as possible to actively participate. So what's the answer?
One way to try to engage people is to wave 500 quid under their nose, which is what Quids in! is doing next issue for its latest financial wellbeing research and again for a project we're working on with the Open University. Our biennial reader survey is a de facto financial resilience survey that we've made available to any partners who'd like to involve their residents and service users and put them in with a shout of winning the cash prize. Meanwhile the OU has MAS funding to engage 'squeezed' households (Theresa May's JAMs - Just About Managing) with a personal finance training tool and they're trying out our magazine as a vehicle to reach high volume numbers - 160,000 lower income households by the end of December!
One problem with getting people to engage in anything right now is, for me, represented best by a big red bus that promises £350m a week to the NHS. It is the embodiment of how we are all bombarded with messages, many conflicting, some fake, some fact, some speculation, some outright propaganda. In the absence of a clear distinction between what is real and what not, all that's left to believe is whatever we want to believe. And who wouldn't want to believe a bus load of cash could be delivered to the health service?
It started with the Mad Men, the con artists and ad execs who would have had us believe a 40-a-day smoking habit could be good for us. They made an art and a science of spinning half-truths and falsehoods into accepted facts believed by the masses. To prove they never went away, think about Wonga: When challenged not to hide their extortionate APRs, their evil pensioner dolls made the percentages a feature in large, bold type like it was a selling point, knowing their target audience are largely financially illiterate.
The internet has made things worse. If ever there was a medium for driving people to believe what they want to believe, it's the Web. There's evidence to support any lie you want to prove. And instead of giving a window to the world, especially for people whose real world selves don't venture beyond their local Post Office, platforms like Facebook have created echo chambers so all you see out the window is a bigger, more self-assured version of yourself.
Don't get me wrong, I don’t think modern life is rubbish. It's just we don't seem ready for it. The rate of change is increasing exponentially and out-pacing regulators, politicians and funders. Buzzwords distract them, (remember Eric Pickles saying claiming benefits online in public spaces would be fine because we'd all be wearing Google glasses by now) and FinTech, like Apps and 'open banking', potentially over-promises to be a silver bullet to help everyone manage their money better. As I recall, while many of us promoting financial capability struggled to get people online at all, Wonga slipped past us and engaged thousands with its 'sliders'. Now lenders offer instant, high-interest loans so fast that if you're broke, hungry and vaguely digitally-literate on a Friday night, the funds can be in your account quicker than the time it takes to order an overpriced pizza.
One of the great things about our partnership with the Open University is that they recognise Quids in! does a great job at keeping things simple. They also see that our independent and reader-centred outlook has created a relationship of trust that opens the doors for lots of other conversations. The OU has all the academic and technical resources to help learners improve their personal finances at their fingertips but they’ve turned to third parties like us and some credit unions to focus on engagement. As a What Works-funded programme, impact will be measured throughout and our part at Quids in! is to put everything we can into engagement.
The aim of all this is to boost the quality of decision-making and this brings us back to the initial question. One that we’ll come back to time and again. But until we crack engagement and then participation it could all feel like something of an academic exercise.