Thursday, 28 February 2013

An open letter to Ofsted's chief inspector

Dear Sir Michael,

I read with interest the reports earlier this week on your proposals to introduce payment for school governors in order to 'provide more professional leadership' in our schools.

Whilst I agree with your views that poor governance must be challenged I do question the logic of your proposal to do this by remunerating governors in excess of the legitimate expenses they incur.

To start with you seem to be confusing the word professional for competent. This is a common mistake. Being a professional means:

  • belonging to a profession
  • engaging in a specific activity as one's main paid occupation rather than as an amateur 

Professional is not primarily defined as competent but as being paid, in the same way that amateur doesn't mean incompetent but means unpaid. Many athletes are amateurs (i.e. unpaid) and are highly competent. Some paid staff are professional but grossly incompetent.

Paying governors is not the answer.

Secondly, you seem to be equating payment with competence. This is a completely false assumption. Whether someone is good at what they do is not fundamentally linked to how much they get paid for doing that job. Our news headlines are frequently filled with stories of paid professionals who are negligent, incompetent and irresponsible. Regardless of remuneration people can be good or bad at what they do.

Paying governors is not the answer.

Thirdly, if securing the skills of competent governors is a challenge for schools, why do you thinking paying people to join governing bodies will succeed? Isn't there a risk that we will instead simply attract people more interested in the money than in the improvement of children's education? Why not spend more time on effective governor recruitment, seeking out the people with the skills that are needed rather than resorting to crude bribery.

Paying governors is not the answer.

These arguments also sit behind the lazy thinking within the voluntary sector that seems to believe charities will be governed better by people who are paid than by volunteers. Whilst a vocal few keep banging on about this, the public are not in favour, the sector do not support it and the government have also ruled out making payment of trustees more common.

I believe your thinking is not only flawed but hugely insulting to the thousands of us who tirelessly work as unpaid volunteers on governing bodies of schools across the land in order to give children a better education.

I urge you to reconsider your proposals.

Yours sincerely.

Rob Jackson
Consultant and trainer specialising in strategic volunteer engagement
Chair of governors of a Lincolsnhire Primary school
School governor for 7+ years

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Lies damned lies and statistics

So the new Community Life Survey (successor to the Citizenship Survey) is out and the headline is an apparent vindication of Big Society as the proportion of people doing any volunteering (formal and informal) between August and October 2012 has increased to 71% from the last Citizenship Survey figure of 65%.

Except that isn't the whole story and things aren't as rosy as the government may have you believe, at least to these eyes. 

From my reading of the data, formal volunteering at least once a month and once a year have risen back to 2005 levels after a dip over the last few years. 

However, we have to be cautious. Remember, the results are for August to October 2012 so it could be a post-Olympic blip. I don't imagine the field work was done in Stratford amongst people wearing pink and purple! As Helen Timbrell of the National Trust suggested to me yesterday, people may have been more ready to see what they already do as volunteering due to the higher public awareness of volunteers during the Games.

Furthermore, as the trend data above shows there have been fluctuations up and down over the last thirteen years, the last peak coming around the Year of The Volunteer in 2005 which was a concerted campaign to get more people giving time. 

So, whilst the headline is encouraging, we'll have to wait for future Community Life results to see if the increase in volunteering is sustained.

In terms of the headline figure that 71% of people did formal or informal volunteering at least once a year, that may be up on 2009/10 and 2010/11's figures of 66% & 65% but these figures were skewed downward by a sharp and unexpected drop in levels of informal volunteering (see below). Additionally, an overall rate of 71% is the same as 2008-09, down on 2007/08 (73%) and lower than at any other time since the citizenship survey started. Hardly a vindication for the Big Society. If anything, it shows that we're back to where we were four / five years ago.

The good news is informal volunteering which saw a big dip in 2009/10 & 2010/11 (and which nobody could explain at the time ) is back up to the level of before 09/10, albeit at a slight decrease and 6% lower than in 2001. Again, we're back to where we were four / five years ago.

So, in summary, whilst the headlines may be all about the success of the coalition government's policies to get us volunteering more, the reality is perhaps more cautious. As with all data, trends need to be seen over time and at least with the Community Life survey we have trackable data on volunteering once more. I hope the upswing will continue but for now I think we have to be careful about assuming government policy is working as well as Whitehall suggest when the real story is we are back to where we were in 2008/09 (i.e. pre-recession).

What do you think?

Sports volunteering - fair game?

The other day the lovely people in the volunteering team at The London School of Economics (LSE) shared their latest blog post with me via Twitter. In it they argue against volunteering at the forthcoming Champions League final - it is well worth a read.

The argument against volunteers at the Champions League final seems to be that football is a wealthy sport and so it should pay people to do the roles being advertised. This implies that there is a degree of exploitation at work here, with volunteers engaged in order to keep costs down and profits up whilst players received £millions for what they do.

I can understand that position. We’d generally say that volunteers doing the same roles as paid staff in - say - Tesco would be exploitative. In fact, that’s been a common objection to some of the compulsory work elements of the government’s Work Programme. But are these roles at the cup final the same as those done by paid staff? It doesn’t seem so.

And why object to these when no football match in the country - Premier league included - can take place without the involvement of volunteers in safety critical roles in the form of  first aiders from St John Ambulance?

A further point that the team at LSE make is that in some circumstances volunteering at big events like this is OK because whilst the event may be organised by a profit making body the people taking part aren’t well paid professionals. Therefore it was OK for volunteers to work at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, even though they were sometimes doing the same jobs paid staff were also doing. Whilst this may be true for the majority of athletes, what about the likes of Ennis, Bolt and Phelps (millionaires all) and the need for LOCOG to make as much money as possible to ensure the games didn’t lose money?

To me, it doesn’t make a difference if its the individual athletes making lots of money, the sport making lots of money or nobody making lots of money. There are two reasons for this:

  1. Volunteering in the for-profit sector is recognised as not universally a bad thing. For example, volunteers work in private hospitals and care homes doing key roles that staff would never do, enhancing patient care and providing a service everyone should expect whether they are cared for in public, private or voluntary sectors.
  2. Sport in this country lives on the support of volunteers. Coaches, officials, players, families, people who wash kit, transport kids, provide catering, run the club finances etc.. 

Big sporting events - be they Olympics, Commonwealth Games, football matches, Tour De France stages, the ICC Champions Trophy this summer or anything else - give an all too rare opportunity to showcase the importance of volunteering to sport, to society and to celebrate the efforts of our nation’s great volunteers.

Last summer’s Olympics saw the UK public getting an insight into how essential volunteers are to life in this country, how volunteers underpin the fabric of everything we take for granted. The visibility of volunteers and volunteering was massively enhanced. Shouldn’t we hope for that same effect at the Champion’s League final - and work towards supporting it to happen - rather than sitting on the sidelines crying foul?

What do you think?

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Are legal rights the best way to improve the treatment of volunteers?

A month ago friend and colleague John Ramsey shared his thoughts on the pre-Christmas 2012 decision by the Supreme Court that volunteers were not entitled to the same legal rights under employment law as paid staff. You can read John’s excellent article on the IVO social network.

Volunteer rights is an emotive issue and one I last visited on this blog a year ago after writing a piece on the issue for Third Sector online in June 2011. Sadly it is an issue that won’t go away. I say sadly not because I wish this would all get brushed under the carpet but because clearly things are not getting better across the volunteering movement. 

Disappointingly the work around the 3R Promise that resulted from the hard work of the Volunteer Rights Inquiry seems to have been lost in the last couple of years. Sure plenty of organisations have signed up to the promise but the momentum of the Inquiry has been lost - not least because of the cuts at Volunteering England and their resulting merger with NCVO - and the issue seems to now be left to just a few vocal campaigners to keep on the sector’s radar.

The 3R Promise was an opportunity for volunteer involving organisations (VIOs) to get their houses in order. Note that I say VIOs not volunteer managers (VMs). The Inquiry was clear that it often was not VMs who were to blame for poor treatment of volunteers but paid staff (often in management positions) and sometimes trustees (volunteers themselves) who were at fault. This wasn’t an issue to simply be fixed by better volunteer management or increased take up of Investing In Volunteers (which at the end of the day just says an organisation has good processes, not that it treats volunteers well).

There were plenty of voices around the VRI table calling for an independent complaints body or ombudsman to take responsibility for the issue. That could have been a statutory body or a self-regulatory one like the FRSB in the fundraising world. In the end the Inquiry opted not to go down such a route, preferring an approach that gave VIOs (at least those whose practice wasn’t up to scratch) a chance to improve. Not only did this seem like the wise way to proceed but it was also clear that in an environment of voluntary and public sector belt tightening the Inquiry would have faced a high uphill struggle to secure the funding necessary to establish any new body for volunteer rights.

Perhaps the time to re-evaluate that decision is now upon us? But does that mean we go straight to legislation, establishing protection explicitly for volunteers within primary legislation? In John’s article he seems to suggest that this would be a sensible way forward. I’m not so sure.

First of all, legislation doesn't solve the problem. Legislation means that when problems occur there is a route to resolution that is available to volunteers. We’ve had anti-discrimination for employees in the UK for many years but that hasn’t stopped employers discriminating. Why then do we believe that legislation will solve this issue?

Second, legislation would require parliamentary time to introduce. There seems to be little interest within Westminster or any of the other UK parliaments to address this issue. In fact, the current direction is towards the Westminster government repealing aspects of employment legislation as it applies to paid staff and seeking to weaken the position of EU discrimination legislation (which often provides better protection for employees than UK law). Against such a prevailing wind, why would MPs decide to introduce changes to the law that would add protections to tens of millions of people?

Thirdly, I continue to maintain that legislation would be counter-productive. We’ve already seen many organisations cut resources for volunteer engagement as money has become more scare post global financial crisis. We also know that many organisations - at least in the middle to large organisation end of the sector - don’t see volunteers as a resource worth investing in, preferring instead to try and raise more and more money from an increasingly cash strapped and donor fatigued British public. If we suddenly make engaging volunteers much more bureaucratic than it is at the moment I fear we’ll see more organisations choosing not to engage volunteers at all as the costs and risks increase at a time of scare resources. And all that’s before I consider the impact on volunteer managers who would become even more process obsessed than they already are when what we need is for them to become for focused on individuals, on people, on volunteers.

So what then is the way forward?

Well there is no simple answer. The resource isn’t there for a new statutory body to stand up for volunteers when they are treated badly. The resource is also lacking for a self-regulatory body and considerable support would be needed from across the sector if this were to happen. Fundraising self-regulation only came about because statutory regulation was threatened and even now it is only those organisations that choose to submit to self-regulation that are subject to it.

The Charity Commission might seem a natural place to turn except they have seen considerable cuts to their budget in the last few years and anyway a significant number of volunteers don’t ‘work’ in organisations that come under the Commission’s regulatory remit.

How about Volunteering England? Now a part of NCVO there is an opportunity for the issue of volunteer rights to be brought to the table of a wider audience than just volunteer managers and volunteer centres. Yet NCVO stands up for bodies (again, only in the voluntary sector / civil society) so would it really have an appetite to side with volunteers, effectively ending up policing and potentially ‘punishing’ its own members for poor practice?

In reality the closest we have to any form of regulation explicitly around volunteering is the Institute of Fundraising who have a code of practice on  volunteer fundraising that is binding upon its individual and organisational members. Any complain against this code brings us back to the FRSB who would investigate any alleged breaches.

We also don’t need another Volunteer Rights Inquiry. The original Inquiry’s work still stands as valid, the issue is what we do about it given that the 3R Promise hasn’t worked. 

What we need is someone to step up and start a debate about how we can proceed. Someone who can ensure the discussions don’t become a talking shop but a forum for change and action, a platform from which we can try to eradicate poor treatment of volunteers rather than simply provide a legislative sticking plaster when things go wrong.

Ideally this ‘somebody’ would be a partnership between the key sector umbrella bodies. In England these seem to be more concerned with paid staff and fundraising than volunteers so perhaps we have to look elsewhere in the UK, to bodies like Volunteer Development Scotland or Volunteer Now (in Northern Ireland) or to organisations like The Association of Volunteer Managers (should they ever arise from what appears to be hibernation).

Whatever gets done and whoever does it something must happen. Allowing poor treatment of volunteers, however isolated, is something we must never be comfortable with. 

What do you think is the way forward?

Please share your thoughts on what should happen next and who should take the lead on this issue.