Professionalism is interesting because it’s an idea that’s consistent both with relations that are exchange-based and relations that are gift-based. In John Craig’s publication for Demos, ‘Production Values‘, it covers how professionalism is changing in today’s society. For Craig, there’s a fundamental tension in the way we perceive professionalism.
On the one hand, professionals are neutral experts upholding certain ethical values that we hold dear as a society universally, while on the other professionals represent a narrow particular interest group in society in their role as producers of certain goods or services. To illustrate this Craig has two quotes from Tony Blair in 2005:
The best solution is to do what the police say they need in order to protect the country from terrorism.
Public service reforms must be driven by the wishes of the users not the producers.
These quotes allude to two further points. First, that professions that come together can influence the political agenda. Professionals represent a political force in society today. And second, that professionals authority is increasingly challenged by the relative rise in the clout of the consumer or service user. There is increasing pressure to organise services around those the professionals serve which is significantly changing the relationship between the professional and their clients.
The web in particular is playing a role in changing this relationship by reversing the information asymmetry (professionals no longer hold a monopoly on access to information). The web’s also connecting service users together, enabling them to more effectively challenge the professionals. They Work for You, Mypolice and Patient Opinion are some examples of this trend.
I’m particularly interested in how this idea of professionalism is influencing the development in the voluntary sector. According to Richard Reeves and John Knell, there are four principle ways in which professions can define themselves and which I want to explore in this post:
- Restricting entry into the labour market, e.g. by requiring specific formal qualifications
- Organising labour to maximise the profession’s political and economic leverage
- Creation and articulation of a professional ethos (set of shared values by which the profession’s work is conducted)
- Establishing recognition of the impact of the profession’s work
The following is paraphrased from Reeves and Knell’s article, “Good work and professional work” from the Demos publication ‘Production Values’ cited above:
Restricting entry into the labour market
Formal qualifications (like PGCE, MD, LLB, ACCA ONE and others) that restrict entry to a profession perform a number of functions:
- It gives the profession a certain amount of control over who can claim to be part of the profession
- It gives the professional recognition and a mechanism for identifying excellence
- It provides the service user or consumer with assurance over the quality of the work of the professional
- It forms the basis of trust between the service users and the professionals
Organising professional labour
Trade bodies (colleges, societies, associations and trades unions to a certain extent) can often act as powerful voices for the interests of a particular profession to maximise their political and economic leverage. The problem for these bodies is that they often blur the line between the occupational interests of their members and those of the users of their services.
In ‘The rise of professional society: England since 1880′ by Harold James Perkin:
Specialisation leads directly to professionalism. Specialists rapidly form guilds, association, clubs or unions to enhance their status, protect their skills from competition, and increase their incomes. That some become organised professions and others trade unions is due to a trick of the English language, aided by English snobbery. Profession… originally meant any occupation, and the more prestigious trades were distinguished by the adjectives ‘liberal’ (meaning gentlemanly) and ‘learned’ (meaning institutionally educated) professions.
By dropping the epithets the more prestigious occupations, chiefly the clergy, law and medicine, laid claim to the exclusive label of ‘profession’, which came to mean an occupation which so effectively controlled its labour market that it never had to behave like a trade union.
Creation and articulation of a professional ethos
What distinguishes a professional is not just their expertise and knowledge, it’s also about their motivation, i.e. it’s not a technical category, it’s about the values that back up the technical ability. The medical profession’s Hippocratic oath is one of the most celebrated expressions of a professional ethos. Take this quote from the oath for example:
Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death. If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.
In many cases unlike the Hippocratic oath, professionals don’t always express their ethos explicitly, it’s more implicit in the culture of the profession and has developed over time. Scout law and Scout’s honour is an interesting example of this ethos in a voluntary setting. When a Scout Leader had a accident and made two scout’s in her care lie to cover it up, it was an example of the social significance of such an ethos whether the work is paid or not. The furore over MPs expenses is a more profile example of professionals perceived as breaking the ethos of their profession, if not always the letter of the law.
The word ‘professional’ stems from the way individuals with special responsibilities (often in religious settings) had to ‘profess’ their faith and commitment to their vocation. It was a public declaration. At it’s heart professional ethos is about the professional publicly committing to put the interests of others before their own. This professional integrity is the basis of the professional’s authority and status, to then serve societies needs for justice, education, health, etc. Without it, trust between the professional and service user is nigh impossible. At the same time, our attempts to hold professionals to account may be counter productive- see Onora Neill:
We are requiring those in the public sector and the professions to account in excessive and sometimes irrelevant detail to regulators and inspectors, auditors and examiners. The very demands of accountability often make it harder for them to serve public sector.
In ‘Alone Again: Ethics after certainty‘ (PDF) Zygmunt Bauman argued that ˜modern organisation is a contraption designed to make human actions immune from what the actors believe and feel privately’ (p.8). John Craig sums up these new personal demands on professionals:
Today our experiences of work have come full circle, with professional and personal values more closely connected than ever before. While for some this is a source of satisfaction, for others it can create stress and exhaustion. In order to support professional work, we need to help people to build new relationships between their personal and professional lives.
Establishing recognition of the impact of the profession’s work
Reeves and Knell explain this idea in reference to the teaching profession:
A teacher may have a PGCE, the National Union of Teachers may act effectively to secure her monopsonistic advantage, and she may have a strong motivation to equip the next generation for a fulfilling life. But she also has to succeed: the children in the classroom have to be educated.
There is a transformative aspect to the work of professionals. Their work effects real change. For some professions, articulating what this change is, is easier than it is for others. For example, a doctor ‘makes sick people better’. Increasingly though this simplification feels old-fashioned. Now doctors are “highly qualified, highly regulated experts operating in a specific, clearly demarcated occupational and institutional space”. So while impact remains crucial, it can be increasingly complex to demonstrate impact in the terms expected by service users and society at large.
New kind of professionalism
Reeves and Knell contend that throughout the latter half of the twentieth century, professional status and authority has primarily been built on restricting access to the labour market and organising collectively.
Increasingly though it is important to make the ethos and impact central. The relationship between users of professional services and the professionals themselves is changing. Users are better educated, have access to more and more information and have the means to demand increasing partnership where services are co-produced. The web is changing this balance of power, the culture of deference and the wider social context where users are much more connected. Professionals need to be clear about their ethos and what their impact is to ensure this new relationship is built on trust.
Professional identity has been based on good qualifications and good collective organisation. In the future it will need to be based more securely on good work. Good work is work undertaken with integrity as well as competence. A professional is someone who is demonstrably good at what they do, but also doing it against a set of fixed ethical benchmarks that the user can trust. Work, whether paid or unpaid, is the principal means by which we impact on the world. It is a transforming process. Good work consists of efforts to transform the world or the people around us in a positive direction. Good professional work additionally involves the exercise of a set of specific skills. This is where trends in professional identification coincide with a growing demand among individuals for work that is meaningful’.
On this point of co-production Charles Leadbeater in ‘Production by the Masses‘ looks to a post-industrial conception of our professions. Professionals currently oversee the mass production of public goods such as education and health. Instead, we need to look to how service users can be more involved in this process of production, and Leadbeater asks what the role of professionals should be in this process.
The pupil is ˜schooled’ to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is ˜schooled’ to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools and other agencies in question.
Leadbeater continues this point:
The triumph of modern industrial society, according to Illich, is the creation of institutions on a vast scale, which provide services such as education, health and policing that might have once been limited to just a few. These universal systems aspire to deliver services that are fair and reliable. Yet that in turn requires codes, protocols and procedures, which often make them dehumanising.
The paradox is that this industrial approach to establishing universal systems delivering public goods, comes with regulation to coordinate all the complex parts of the system. In time, Illich observed, this coordination through policies and procedures has a dehumanising effect. These massive systems could lead to counter productive results and a culture of dependency. It transforms citizens into consumers of these industrially produced public goods and services.
Illich wanted to achieve a delicate balance of the personal and the collective. A system dominated by the collective leads to dependent citizens, while one dominated by the personal was profoundly inequitable. For example, Illich wanted to transform education into a system of skills exchanges and directories where individuals could choose subjects based on their interest and propose others for discussion. In 1971 this was a pretty amazing precursor to the kind of system the web is beginning to make possible.
Essentially, Illich saw the role of professionals as crucial in this process of educating their users to be more self-reliant, and provide users with the means to self-assess the services that professionals offer. Instead, so often it is the professional who assesses what users need, assesses their entitlement and then inspectors evaluate. Illich saw it as vital to give citizens a greater role in service delivery.
Professionalism in the third sector
In ‘Double devolution- How to put the amateurs in charge‘, Nick Aldridge and Astrid Kirchner claim that the Third Sector is well-placed to take on the challenge of devolving the delivery of public good, with its ability to involve volunteers and citizens alongside professionals in building social capital and reforming public services.
Aldridge and Kirchner argue that the third sector tends to be wary of professionalism. They point to the low level of investment across the sector in its staff professional development.
The UK Voluntary Sector- Workforce Almanac 2007 Jenny Clark (NCVO and Workforce Hub): “More than four out of ten voluntary sector workers (43%) are employed in ˜associate professional and technical’ and ˜managerial and senior official’ occupations. This professionalisation of the voluntary sector increases the attractiveness of the sector as a career choice.”
At the same time, work has been done to articulate standards in the third sector, for example Justin Davis Smith, Chief Executive, Volunteering England explains the importance of the National Occupational Standards for the management of volunteers:
“The redevelopment of these National Occupational Standards for the Management of Volunteers, together with a qualification framework for NVQs and SVQs, is a further significant step forward in enabling those concerned with supporting volunteers to make their full contribution to organisations and to develop their own skills and professionalism in this critical role.”
Steven Bubb, Chief Executive of the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), has campaigned for greater professionalisation in the third sector. In a lecture in 2007 ‘Building castles in the air: the case for professionalising the third sector’ (PDF):
“A growing sector, exerting power and influence whether in campaigning and advocacy, delivering services, or promoting civil society, needs to ensure high standards of professionalism in its leadership and organisation, and if the sector is growing then the public will expect to see greater transparency and accountability in charities.”
Bubb identifies a number of pressures on professionalisation in the third sector:
- Lack of investment in administration in charities due to fear of accusations of waste (criticisms of levels of pay)
- Romantic idea that volunteering activity comes at minimal costs
- Sense the large charities need to be smaller and more informal (State-funded charities should lose charitable status)
- Loose and outdated governance practices
- At present 80% of CEOs in ACEVO membership come from outside the sector, with the largest cohort from the private sector (this is potentially a limiting factor)
Broadly, Bubb believes that the third sector in its quest for professionalisation needs to respond to these pressures. It should defend levels of pay and call for more investment where needs are identified. It should be clear about the costs of supporting volunteering. It should defend charities right to grow in size. Governance practices should be overhauled and a new code of practice should be agreed. Finally, the third sector should embrace those with skills and experience from other sectors of the economy.
NCVO Third Sector Foresight adds these limitations and risks from professionalisation (particularly of volunteer management):
- Volunteering may be increasingly perceived as a means of developing skills and a career, especially for young people (see graphic below on full-time volunteering- though it’s not clear why this should necessarily be a result of the professionalisation of volunteer management. It might have more to do with the trend of volunteering to be more exchange-like (volunteering to achieve specific personal outcomes), and less gift-like (volunteering to achieve outcomes for others).
- Older or vulnerable volunteers may be discouraged from professionalised volunteering, causing a decrease in numbers of volunteers. The study that we mentioned in the last post looking at volunteer motivations found that the older volunteers were relatively more motivated by general sentiments like ‘meeting a need in the community’ and ‘making the world a better place’ than by learning new skills or career development.
- Rigid structures may discourage those who would prefer a less formalised approach (whether volunteering is over-formalised is a hot topic, but it’s important to question whether professionalisation of volunteer management necessarily results in more formalised volunteering- see this debate on e-Volunteerism). Ivan Scheier’s People Approach from 1981 is a good articulation of the different approach of volunteering, and how it doesn’t fit the formal model we have for paid jobs.
- Increased levels of complexity for organisations and particularly volunteer managers.
- Risk that innovation and spontaneity between volunteers and organisations are stifled.
Professionalism and volunteering
It’s important to distinguish professionalism in the voluntary sector with professionalism and volunteering.
First, there’s a type of volunteering referred to as ‘professional volunteering’ which is normally used to mean volunteers who are recruited specifically to roles where they will use their skills and experience as professionals, e.g. pro bono solicitors, etc.
Second, Leadbeater and Miller wrote about the concept of professional amateurs:
A Pro-Am [professional amateur] pursues an activity as an amateur, mainly for the love of it, but sets a professional standard. Pro-Ams are unlikely to earn more than a small portion of their income from their pastime but they pursue it with the dedication and commitment associated with a professional. For Pro-Ams, leisure is not passive consumerism but active and participatory; it involves the deployment of publicly accredited knowledge and skills, often built up over a long career, which has involved sacrifices and frustrations.
Third, there’s the professionalisation of those who manage and develop volunteering. This has been a long running issue. For example, see this article by Susan Ellis back in 1997. In fact, Steve McCurley and Susan Ellis has just published (Jan 2010) an article online in e-Volunteerism where they’ve assessed the development of professional volunteerism associations (locally, regionally, nationally and internationally).
For the last decade, we’ve watched professional associations of volunteer program managers – on local, state/provincial, national and even international levels – launch, thrive, wither, revive or stagnate in dozens of countries. Our conclusion? There is still no consistency of purpose or success among these various groups, though the need for professional exchange remains as critical as ever.
One key point in the discussion has been whether people see volunteer management as a career, or just as a job. In the UK, Prospects the career website has a description of the role of a Volunteer Coordinator. But it is yet to be widely recognised as a field in itself. Part symptom, part cause is the difficulty that professional volunteerism bodies around the world have had in getting established.
Interestingly, despite the point made by Ellis and McCurley about the lack of consistency, volunteer management in the UK is advancing as a profession on the four points identified by Reeves and Knell set out at the top of this post.
Restricting entry into the labour market– new qualifications have been developed in volunteer management and the National Occupational Standards have been drawn up. However, these are more with a view to build capacity and provide formal recognition for volunteer managers, rather than restrict access to roles in volunteer management per se. There are still relatively few practitioners in volunteer management who have got achieved formal qualifications in the field.
Organising labour– the Association of Volunteer Managers along with other associations have been formed to give volunteer managers a voice and to increase the profession’s political and economic leverage. Sean Cobley AVM’s Chair has argued strongly for the professionalisation of volunteer management.
Creation and articulation of a professional ethos (set of shared values by which the profession’s work is conducted). In terms of a code, the Association of Volunteer Managers has a code of conduct for members. While in 2005 NCVO and the Charity Commission established a full blow code of governance ‘Code for the Voluntary and Community Sector‘. It follows the Nolan Principles established by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. They are Selflessness, Integrity, Objectivity, Accountability, Openness, Honesty, and Leadership.
Part of the challenge here though is developing an ethos that is distinctive from the broad code for the voluntary sector on the one hand. And different from the field of Human Resources which is often held as the equivalent to volunteer management in the private and public sector. John Ramsey and Stephen Moreton have both argued against any equivalence being made on AVM’s website.
Establishing recognition of the impact of the profession’s work is one of the hardest things for the profession of volunteer managers to achieve. There is very little research into what the impact specifically is of those professionals in volunteer management. The research that does exists tends to focus on identifying the impact of volunteering in general. For example, the Institute of Volunteering Research’s Impact Assessment toolkit or using a broader technique like Social Return on Investment (SROI).
It’s an issue that AVM discussed at its last AGM in 2009. Here’s an example of one study on volunteer management from 2004 by Kirsten Holmes – “The impact of professional volunteer management on the volunteer experience: an exploratory investigation using the Volunteer Management Orientation Score (VMOS)”. The Management Matters survey also went some way to providing some baseline information on volunteer management in England.
Professionals and amateurs
Finally it’s interesting to contrast professionals and amateurs, because actually there is a lot in common. John Graham-Cumming in an article ‘A welcome bunch of amateurs‘, looks at the issue from the perspective of amateurs.
We’re all the children of amateurs: amateur parents. There’s no government department that will certify you as a parent (thankfully), nor a university department where you get your PhD in being a daddy, nor a professional body ready to strike you off for not following mothering standards. But any parent who’s held a newborn child in their arms has unconsciously taken the amateur’s oath: “I may not be a professional, but I’m going to do whatever it takes to act like one.”
It’s a pity that too often we associate amateur with amateurish, and dismiss amateurs as second-rate pretenders to a professional throne. What we should remember is that the word amateur has its roots in the French word for love: amour. And amateurs do for love what professionals do for money.
It’s crucial not to lose sight of where professionalism and amateurism intersect: values of good work (working for the common good, not just individual self-interest). The Work Foundation has set up a Good Work Commission to develop this idea. Amateurism without values of good work is leisure. Professionalism without the values of good work is wage labour. Final word to Reeves and Knell:
The professions need to re-connect with the deeper roots of their authority: why, how and to what end they do their work. Good work begets professionalism, and the future of the professions is dependent on their ability to remake and refashion good work.