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?


  1. They say the data is comparable... I would just like some independent confirmation from someone who knows about these things.

  2. Posted on behalf of Nikki Squelch:

    Good analysis peice Rob, Thanks. I think that with the timing of the research there could be a number of influencing factors. Like you noted from Helen, the profile of 'helping out' in the local sports club or at school or the like now has the volunteer profile, with out the beige and purple. It would be great to see what happened in the last recession too. I remember studying Social Work in Australia during a grim economic time and a lecturer saying, as the economy gets worse the number of jobs for social workers increases. I've hear reports that food banks are busier then ever and there are more popping up all over the country. Does poverty lead to a community response - yes it does, in my opinion and I suspect that this has an impact on the results too. Community repsonse is the Big Society but when it becomes intolerable it becomes Big Social Action. I predict a riot!