Looking Gift Aid in the mouth

An interesting discussion last week: straying into the moral minefield of charitable giving, the issue of Gift Aid came up. (A small warning here. If you’re the treasurer of a charity, you’re probably not going to like this very much. Sorry.)

“How marvellous is Gift Aid!” my neighbour cried.

“How fraudulent is Gift Aid!”, I replied.

OK, perhaps not actually fraudulent. No one is actually being defrauded in a way that a court would recognise. But it’s not a wholly transparent business.

“Hang on, for every pound I give, the Chancellor adds another 28p. Everybody wins”, intones the fan.

“Well, how very kind of him”, comes my refrain. Reaching into that large piggy bank (or ‘coffer’ – beloved tabloid phrase) under his bed and counting out the extra pennies himself. “What a saintly man!”

Of course he doesn’t. Where do you think that 28p is coming from? Alistair’s little printing press? No: it’s a draw against general taxation in just the same way as education and social services (or indeed nuclear deterrent, aviation fuel tax relief, and lots of other things you might find less palatable).

Is it a good thing in principle to do this? Well, it might be. But only if one is prepared to make a huge, sweeping assumption that giving to any charity does more ‘good’ on average than the alternative of spending it on any other public sector cause.

So what could be improved here? I’m not suggesting it should be scrapped, but at least we could try and get a little more real about Gift Aid. What if the government labelled it more honestly as “a way in which you can add to your contribution by diverting some money that would otherwise prop up the health service, light the streets, build Olympic infrastructure etc. etc. etc.”*

It’s your choice, of course – but your choice should be informed.

Oh, and higher rate taxpayers – what about you? There’s a tiny little issue that no one really likes to talk about. Come tax return time, the penny usually drops. Or indeed, drops, bounces, and flicks back up into your pocket. There’s a nice little kick-back, isn’t there? That difference between higher and standard rate that neatly offsets some of the aforementioned general funding of public services.

Now isn’t that the ultimate win-win? You get to feel worthy, and you get cashback! B-b-b-b-b-but – my neighbour burbles – it’s such a good incentive. It makes people give more.

I agree. It does. So would giving them beer vouchers, or a free MacBook Air, but it doesn’t make it the right thing to do. That transparency point again – how it all works and where the money really flows should be made much more clear.

But ultimately this is all about personal choice.

You could choose to keep it simple. Don’t tick the box. Don’t put charitable giving on your tax return. Let your pound be an honest, real pound. Up it by the extra 28p yourself if the cause is that dear to your heart. Or if you do declare it, factor in that little kick-back in advance when deciding what to give. But of course, you probably do that already, don’t you? ;-)

*this is a bit wordy. Ever my weakness. Could you put it more succinctly?

The dark side of citizen empowerment (Part 2) – a cautionary tale

Johnny was a rebel. A real maverick of a man. Show him a system, and he’d find a way round it. All the little get-outs, he got out through. He opted out of all opt-in mailings, he had his number put on the list to avoid junk calls, he made sure as hell he wasn’t on that electoral roll that’s for sale. His email address was a miracle of concealment to fool the bots, and you’d be bloody lucky to get it. And almost nobody got anywhere near his ‘real’ online identity.

If he was a bit naughty in his car, he’d make a real song and dance about ’fessing up to who was actually driving. There had to be pictures. Of his face. If not, he’d write long letters inevitably quoting the Human Rights Act. Stopped by the coppers in Waterloo? Same thing, knowing all the right responses to give to stay just the right side of the law, and exactly what would press the frustration button of the guy in the yellow jacket.

Junk calls? He loved those – playing right into the hands of his call centre victim – baiting them further and further into revealing who they worked for, and where, while tapping away merrily on his 192.com account and his Google Maps (and other, darker sources). Until he could surprise them by telling them the name of their wife. And if really pissed off, that he was watching their house from across-Church-Street-right-at-this-minute-pal.

Always pushing things to the very edge to protect his data, and his rights. Because information was Johnny’s lifeblood. His belonged securely locked away. But others’? Especially ‘public’ information? Ah, that was a bit different. Everything had to be open. Without compromise. If the government had it (or he thought they had it) he wanted at it. If there was something out there about a corporation, he wanted it mashed-up, unpacked, aggregated, chopped every which way.

Consumer rights were a passion. He joined every pressure group he could. It was his duty to share with others, not about himself of course, but about his purchases, how he claimed his benefits, what he did to swing the right school place for his kids, and so on…

He delighted in sharing the things The Man didn’t really want you to find out. The uglier stories of corporate hell. The product reviews that told tales from inside the factory. The quicker routes to claiming from the state. Where the councillor lived, and what they got up to on the internet that they thought nobody could find out about…

He bloody loved saynoto0870.com.

He whiled away boring afternoons phoning companies to pester them into giving up geographical alternatives to those noxious money-making numbers. They hated it, he really knew they did, but he knew how to beat the scripts – where to find the weak spots. And when he struck gold, up on the site it went.

Johnny was liberating the system for the downtrodden: the people who actually lived in the same town as their bank and shouldn’t be paying national rate numbers. The bundled-mobile-minutes crowd, who were buggered if they were going to pay twice for the same call.

And so it went. Until the day the crushing pain gripped his chest. Late nights, junk food, way too much coffee – his heart was giving out. He reached for the phone. The local health practice’s 0870 number… nah, he had the ‘real’ one. – Sure, get here asap, they said. The ambulance came. On the trolley now, doctors coming and going. A bit blurry. Fading, fading. A machine – wires… something, something wrong. Shaking heads. Dark, dark, dark.

The back-up defibrillator had failed. Wouldn’t normally have been used, but the real one had gone away for repair. In the old days, when the budget allowed, they’d have got the engineer on site. But things were pared to the bone now, and there was a 24-hour turnaround contract.

Of course, the budget shortfall hadn’t been helped by the drop in all the little sources of income for the health centre. Those guys who’d found an inconsistency in the boundary records for the car park, and had clawed back all those parking charges. Oh, and the strange drop in the margin on the 08— numbers. Some clever arses had found out the local numbers and put them on the internet.

At the edge of every system, it’s the tiniest differences that swing things. Johnny had just slipped, irretrievably, over the edge. 

The dark side of citizen empowerment (Part 1)

Game Theory fascinates me. How one’s own choices interact with those of others – sometimes with quite perverse results. This isn’t the place to give an entire take on the theory; but let’s just work with one of the core concepts: cooperation and defection.

Cooperators work the way the system says they should work. Defectors don’t play by the rules. Cooperators follow conventions, patterns, structures. Defectors deliberately ride roughshod through them. Typically, the Defector’s short-term gain from ‘cheating’ can be shown – at least in theory – to be completely unsustainable. Very often it’s possible to create a sort of morality message which shows why the rules are the way they are. And yet Defectors very often do very well…

An example: heading east on the M40, about two miles before the M25 junction you notice something strange. The nearside (~slow) lane is a queue of very slow-moving cars. The other three lanes are moving rapidly. You want to join the M25. If you Cooperate, you pull over to the far left, join the queue and just take your turn. If you Defect, you listen to a dark voice in your ear… “Go on my son, just hang in there in Lane 2, or even 3. There’s always a gap, easily enough to slip in to. And if there isn’t a gap, just force yerself in, a flash of the lights, pick on a nervous-looking lady, away you go…”

And from years of experience of this route, you know that the gap is always there. So you Defect: you wait until the last minute and carry out what is known in traffic-management-land as a ‘swoop’. And you always do better than if you’d sat in the two mile queue.

Highways designers think up all sorts of crafty schemes to try and stop this (seen those strange ‘diamond’ lane dividers?) but no more detail needed on this example: the lesson here is, cheat and prosper.

The crowd usually cry out at this point “Ah, but if everybody did that, there would be total chaos and everybody would be held up even more. There’d be crashes, and rude gestures, and… erm… it’s just not… right!”

So there’s clearly more to Defecting than just having a whole load of empirical evidence that there’s always big gaps between 400 and 100 yards from the point of no return before the M25 turn-off. You have to be a bit of a git as well.

Aww, I’m kidding. It’s not always called gittishness. Sometimes it’s called “being a free spirit”, sometimes “playing your own game” and sometimes “righteous warrior against systems set up to subjugate the individual”.

Now go and have a look at saynoto0870.com. Have a think about Cooperation and Defection in the light of its wonderful, enlightened, citizen-centric proposition. And we’ll be back here shortly with a fable to drum home the point…