Volunteering adding value to services taken away

There’s a mantra from volunteer management’s missing manual that’s often repeated. It goes something like this:

“the role of volunteering in public service delivery is to add value”

It comes with a caveat though: if no public service exists for volunteers to add value to, all bets are off. Up to now, that’s meant that volunteers that identify a social need (that no current public service meets), always have the last resort of mustering all the resources they can get their hands on and providing the service themselves.

New territory

This model of volunteering in public services built around adding value has developed over many years. In particular, the emphasis of adding value to established services seeks to avoid the spectre of volunteering roles substituting paid roles. Now with the Big Society we’re entering new territory. It’s a policy with the express aim of substituting public services that are publicly funded, with citizen-powered services that may be publicly and or privately funded.

As David Cameron restates in his recent defence of the Big Society:

“devolving power to the lowest level so neighbourhoods take control of their destiny; opening up our public services, putting trust in professionals and power in the hands of the people they serve; and encouraging volunteering and social action so people contribute more to their community”

Despite these kinds of references to how volunteering is at the heart of the Big Society project, it’s still not clear what it’s impact on volunteering will be. One defining feature of Big Society policy is how public service reform will impact on how we think about volunteering.

Too often this debate has been framed as two competing assumptions about whether volunteering and voluntary action are:

  • a ‘nice to have’ because they provide additional goods and services of public value; or,
  • a fundamental part of our society because they are the way we can access many public goods and services at all.

These competing visions of volunteering are nothing new, and actually aren’t really in competition at all. Despite how they’re often presented. Now with Big Society reform on the policy agenda it feels like there’s a new impetus to better understanding the tension between how these two visions intersect. Changing how these ways of approaching volunteering come together could mean a radically redefined sense of volunteering, not just in public service delivery, but beyond.

Volunteers complement and supplement

When I saw Janet Fleming citing the ‘adding value’ mantra in her post, “Placing a volunteer in a key role raises many issues” for the Voluntary Sector Network’s blog, it struck me just how this prevailing consensus about volunteering is being challenged by the current Big Society debate.

Fleming illustrated the thrust of her argument about volunteering at a senior level in an organisation by quoting the agreement between Volunteering England and the TUC:

  • The involvement of volunteers should complement and supplement the work of paid staff, and should not be used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service;
  • The added value of volunteers should be highlighted as part of commissioning or grantmaking process but their involvement should not be used to reduce contract costs;

This agreement highlights why the mantra about volunteers adding value has featured so prominently in thinking and practice in the UK over the last decade: job substitution. For many years the emphasis has been on ‘involving volunteers’ in the delivery of public services. For example, in 2003 the National Centre for Volunteering produced a report typical of the time called “Changing the Face of Social Services“ Volunteers adding value in service delivery” (PDF). It provided guidance on good practice for involving volunteers in public services:

First of all, its important to decide if you actually want to involve volunteers. Try talking to peers and colleagues in other social services departments or NHS Trusts to help you make your decision. Youll need to ask:

  • Are there specific projects or departments youd like to involve volunteers in, and are there roles for them to complement your service?
  • How will they add value?
  • How will they help you to deliver your strategic plan and meet your objectives? [p.21]

In 2008, the Commission on the Future of Volunteering essentially reiterated this position, albeit in different tone, when it recommended that:

“…Where employers involve volunteers in their work, which many charities do as a matter of course. There is more scope for developing this in the public sector and, where it is delivering services on behalf of the state, the private sector (for example, care homes and prison services). The critical tests are that volunteers add genuine value and do not substitute for core service provision.” [p.11-12]

However, this position assumes we’re clear about what exactly ‘core service provision’ is. With Big Society and the very deliberate retrenchment of the state the official goal posts have moved. We’re now radically unclear about what current ‘core service provision’ is. In other words, where are the services and what future is there for the services that volunteers can add value to?

Big Society redefines volunteering

Big Society proponents appear to have another vision for the role of volunteers (otherwise known as citizens contributing to their community). Volunteers’ activity could well play a part in deciding where local communities draw the line between essential and non-essential services. Voluntary action may be both arbiter and agent- helping to decide what services exist and helping to carry them out too.

However, by giving volunteering such a double meaning risks politicising the act of volunteering to help with the delivery of local public services.

  • If I volunteer for a public service that’s no longer considered as ‘core service provision’ and has lost its funding, how will volunteering with the service impact on the professionalisation of that provision?
  • Will engagement of volunteers fill a short term gap in capacity to deliver a service? Or will volunteering with the service undermine the future case for scarce state funds?
  • Will the costs of volunteer management be recognised and met by local authorities contracting out services?

In such a highly charged atmosphere where the issue of what services are part of core provision is debated, the choice to volunteer may well have ramifications beyond the volunteering role itself.

Many proponents of the Big Society seemed remarkably relaxed about this fundamental change in our conception of volunteering in public services and its possible politicisation.

Lord (Nat) Wei, a recently appointed politician, seems more relaxed than most. His comment, “there is a myth that Big Society is all about volunteering” sought to downplay the significance of a key Big Society advisor within government cutting down on his own volunteering. His response to the furore surrounding the announcement about his new working arrangment, was symptomatic of the Big Society argument that we need to loosen certain established ideas about what volunteering is. Yet it’s striking just how little debate there is about what volunteering will be like in the Big Society given how fundamental it is to the policy.

Stakes are big

In Greater London Volunteering’s (GLV) Principles of Volunteering:

“Volunteer roles should enhance the activities of a charity or social enterprise, unless, and particularly in the case of wholly volunteer-led groups, it would otherwise fail to have sufficient staff resources to conduct its activities”.

This idea of volunteers either “adding value” to services or providing them as a last resort (volunteering to provide services that neither the public or private sector provide) needs to be joined up. How they’re joined is crucial because it reflects the delicate balance in the voluntary sector between empowering volunteers and fostering greater professionalisation. Badly managed volunteering can undercut the hard won and often fragile professional development of the voluntary sector’s workforce. The fine details of this issue seem lost on many Big Society proponents whose first reaction is to assume a professional voluntary sector is some kind of tautology brought about by misguided Big Governmentalists.

Public service reform

David Cameron insists that Big Society is not related to the cuts in public services. It may not be connected with the need to reduce the public deficit, but it seems a curious thing to argue that a reduction in funding for public services is not connected to the idea of the retrenchment of the state. The upshot of this retrenchment, cuts or no cuts, means that we’re entering a period where the Government is effectively changing the terms about which public services the citizen should expect the state to underwrite.

Public service reform is to be driven, in part, by voluntary organisations and charities involving volunteers and delivering services. To facilitate this, the Government back in December 2010 removed the Two-Tier Code on public sector service contracts:

“The Coalition Government has committed to opening up government procurement and reducing costs. It has also set itself the aspiration that 25% of government contracts should be awarded to small and medium-sized businesses.”

SME’s, social enterprises, charities, voluntary groups and staff owned mutual providers are all conceived of as potential providers of public services. With a Big Society Bank to help finance and capitalise new service providers. This bank will be funded by commercial banks on a commerical basis. Cameron has pledged that charities will be able to competitively bid for public service contracts.

Charities will have the opportunity to exchange grant-based income with contract-based income and commercial loans. It’s a process that would seem to encourage charities to view the volunteering they foster as a means to an end (delivery of the contract), rather than an end in itself. The story of the WRVS volunteer-run hospital tea-bar in St Albans Hospital (via Karl Wilding) that’s making way for a private franchise high street coffee shop, seems such a poignant example of this transformation in the way volunteering may well evolve in organisations that adopt more contract-based practices. Experience shows that when we lose sight of volunteering as an end in itself, all too often it becomes undervalued and expendable. Can the idea of volunteering as an end in itself persist against a backdrop of contracts?

Redrawing the line

The offering of service contracts is linked to the policy of ‘payment by results’. Core services funded by right will decline, replaced by services where providers are paid by the results they achieve. This means that there will be increasing uncertainty about the future of different public services. Libraries are a prominent and controversial example of the redrawing of that line.

The government was advised in a KMPG report (PDF) to implement “aggressively, consistently and systematically” a new policy of payment by results. When it comes to redrawing the line on what deserves public financial support, the report’s authors Alan Downey, Paul Kirby and Neil Sherlock, all KMPG partners, cited the example of public libraries:

“Local government should seek to devolve to the most local level possible and to encourage communities to take over services. One example would be libraries. Libraries face funding challenges – in that they are more discretionary than other services…”

The give away is that when the authors talk about “encouraging communities to take over services”, in the next breath they mention “funding challenges”. The retrenchment of the state is quite clearly about reducing the amount of money spent by the state. No bad thing. However, anyone in volunteer management knows it is a mistake to see volunteering as a cheap option. As Jayne Cravens has succinctly argued on her blog – volunteer empowerment can be about many things- but if the overriding driver is “saving money”, then volunteer-powered solutions are not the answer.

New perspectives on an old debate

And so this takes me to a final reflection about how those in volunteer management are often curiously polarised by this debate about added value. Whether volunteering should focus ‘adding value’ to already existing public services or whether volunteering’s real value is providing safety net services in the absence of other public services is a matter a considerable debate.

As the Big Society debate deepens and policy is enacted on the ground, the implications of this policy on volunteering come up against new questions.

  • Are we too locked into this view that volunteering is primarily about adding value when it comes to public service delivery?
  • Are we in danger of advocating volunteering for the sake of volunteering, rather than for the sake of service delivery?
  • To what extent is the Big Society forcing us to rethink the relationship between volunteers, voluntary sector professionals and public sector professionals?

Look forward to discussing these issues in the days, weeks and months ahead 🙂


Interesting link to report commissioned by the Community Development Foundation about volunteering in public roles (mapping civic activists to use their terminology) – it complemented the ongoing national evaluation of the Take Part pathfinder prog.

About Patrick Daniels

I work for Resolution as Operations Manager.

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