Recently there’s been a lot of chatter about the idea of the ‘Big Society’, some of which has direct implications for how we think about volunteering. Those active in volunteering need to speak up for a clearer understanding about volunteering in the wider ‘Big Society’ debate.
In the Hugo Young lecture last year, David Cameron talked about the Big Society’s aim to empower “individuals, families and communities”. Volunteering is one key route to empowerment, though Cameron argued, too much state involvement in social issues has reduced volunteering:
“As the state continued to expand, it took away from people more and more things that they should and could be doing for themselves, their families and their neighbours. Human kindness, generosity and imagination are steadily being squeezed out by the work of the state. The result is that today, the character of our society – and indeed
the character of some people themselves, as actors in society, is changing…
The Independent Safeguarding Authority was established to stop children coming into contact with dangerous adults, but by forcing responsible adults to go through the rigmarole of a vetting procedure it will actually reduce the amount of care and love in children’s lives as adults will give up volunteering to help children.”
It’s worth highlighting that this argument conflates two dimensions of volunteering that are often used interchangeably, but should be understood separately. Those dimensions are ‘the noun’ (I am a volunteer) and ‘the verb’ (I volunteer). Cameron suggests that volunteering and empowerment can change our character because it goes to the heart of who we are. It’s volunteering as an identity, as a noun. But he also describes volunteering in very practical terms. Volunteering’s a doing word, a verb. For Cameron it’s the ‘rigmarole’ that’s getting in the way of us volunteering.
Is the real objection for Cameron to vetting procedures that they change the way we do volunteering? Or is it that the vetting regime impugns our character unless the state attests otherwise, and robs us of our identity as volunteers? In other words, is Cameron interested in changing volunteering or in how volunteering changes us?
Can a culture of volunteering be created by a ‘Big Society’ policy anyway? Culture is easy for a politician to talk about, but hard to actually instill.
Volunteering might be made easier to do by government policy, but it also requires volunteers to identify with the social action they are taking. That means changing how we see ourselves. Incentivising volunteering or mandating volunteering are really limited to the ‘doing’ bit of volunteering. Policy can’t so readily penetrate how people identify as volunteers. Any successful volunteering campaign will need to reconcile these two aspects of volunteering.
One clear programme coming down the tracks is the National Citizen Service that was trailed in one of David Cameron’s first speeches after becoming party leader of the Conservatives. It’s likely to be a voluntary scheme for 16 year olds to experience volunteering and social action.
But there’s something bigger (pardon the pun) happening here in policy terms for volunteering than just a new set of volunteering programmes. There’s a new front opening up in British politics and the voluntary sector may well find itself in the centre of this new battleground.
Red Tory author Phillip Blond, founder of think tank ResPublica, has been openly influential in much of David Cameron’s thinking about ‘Big Society’. Blond’s agenda is about opening up new ground between the left’s inclination to favour the state and the right’s inclination to favour the market. Instead, Blond argues, there’s a way forward
through to a new politics of group formation and association for social and economic development.
However, by putting volunteering at the heart of the new politics, we’re more clearly seeing how poorly understood volunteering often is in public discourse and where we need more research and analysis. It’s vital that those with first hand experience of volunteering speak up and enrichen this new debate about the ‘Big Society’, so that new policy in this area builds on real practice and incorporates lessons learnt.
A longer version of this post can be found here.