A Week to Celebrate Volunteers

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National Volunteers’ Week runs through until 12th June 2016, so I thought I’d flag it up and take the opportunity to explore an activity that has become increasingly politicised.

Volunteering is one of the great industrial relations controversies of recent times, albeit one that bubbles along underneath the ones that grab the bigger headlines (fancy more austerity, anyone?!).  For decades, it has been the mainstay of charities, community activity and sports clubs, but in recent years there has been a drive for volunteering to provide things that many people view as public sector duties.

We all seem to have forgotten, but David Cameron’s Big Idea when he became Prime Minister was the Big Society – essentially, in a world where there were going to be extreme cuts to public sector funding, the vision was that the strain would be taken up by voluntary effort.  That’s where the controversy starts, of course.

When budgets are tight, Governments always push for “improved efficiency”.  However, in governmental terms being ‘efficient’ doesn’t mean making optimum use of the resources at your disposal, or even finding ways to do more with what you have – UK Governments of every hue have used the same definition: “improving efficiency” means “do the same or more with fewer people”, rather than doing things better.  So organisations have been faced with arbitrary cuts to their staffing regardless of the potential impact on their ability to deliver statutory responsibilities on behalf of the Government.  In many respects, “Big Society” was the anticipation of that dilemma.  Had society been successfully motivated to volunteer for the requisite roles, they could indeed have plugged some of the gaps.

As the UK ploughs through its 8th year of austerity, with several more years to come, according to George Osborne’s forecasting, greater and greater “efficiency” is being sought in the delivery of public services.  Many organisations have adapted to serious cuts in their budget by reducing the number of people they employ.

The real problem comes in trying to continue work in areas where people have been made redundant.  This isn’t so much a legal issue (replacing a paid member of staff with a suitably skilled volunteer wouldn’t invalidate the redundancy) as a political issue (note the small ‘p’).  Often, the people with the relevant skills are those who’ve just been made redundant so, unless they’ve taken early retirement, persuading them to do the same job, just not to be paid for it, seems an unlikely scenario.

But are the same skills available elsewhere?  Often they aren’t, but when they are, there is another issue to consider- can you persuade the remaining staff, who are now seriously loaded with work, whose morale has been undermined and whose colleagues have been pushed out, that they should take on the additional workload of managing volunteers to do that same work?  A serious flaw in the model is that it’s all too easy to underestimate the amount of professional effort it takes to motivate, organise and deliver using volunteers.  Some of the bigger charities have been doing it for years, and still they need teams of staff dedicated to just that.  It is also an approach best used to deliver “added value” items.  Someone under an employment contract has an obligation to do the job they’re employed to do.  By contrast, if you’re trying to deliver basic services, and a volunteer decides not to turn up, there’s nothing much you can do about it – having managed numerous projects over the years, this is a very real issue that makes project and resource planning much more difficult.

There’s also the problem that people tend to volunteer to do things that they either enjoy doing or in which they have a fundamental belief, so there’s a big problem in getting them to volunteer for things that they believe should be the responsibility of central or local government, or that they simply don’t get a kick from doing.  And why not?  It’s their precious time that they’re donating, so they have an absolute right to use in the way that they want to use it.

Don’t get me wrong: the efforts of volunteers are incredible, and the number of things that happen just because some people are willing to give up their time is exceptional.  You can’t argue with an estimated value to the UK economy of £23.9 billion.  The question is whether or not it is an efficient, reasonable and dependable way to deliver public services: to my eyes, getting something for nothing sounds too good to be true, and we all know what they say about things that sound too good to be true…

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