Writing for the Daily Telegraph the Chairman of the Local Government Association Sir Merrick Cockell warns that it will be impossible for local councils to keep paying for all the services they currently offer as cuts increase. He writes “with half of local government’s savings still having to be found before April 2016, and more cuts promised thereafter, it will no longer be possible to keep slicing away at budgets without services suffering or, in some cases, disappearing completely.”
“We now need to be asking whether people are prepared to take a direct role in providing other services like the running of local museums, sports classes, the upkeep of parks and green spaces and the management of allotment sites.” The Telegraph reports that the LGA estimates that local councils will have to find a further £10bn savings from their budgets, on top of the £10bn cuts already made. Telegraph (Sir Merrick’s article), Telegraph (commentary)
In the last few years, whilst the purse strings have been rapidly tightened following the global financial crash, the debate about volunteers making a greater contribution to the delivery public services has been focused almost exclusively on the risks of these volunteers going paid staff out of work. In public fora, leaders and managers of volunteers have remained largely silent on the issue except for occasional support for the position that volunteers shouldn't do the work that paid staff once did - as if the argument were that simple. In fact Lynn and I tried to address this complexity in a piece for The Guardian back in 2011.
Rarely has anyone spoken about the upside to volunteer involvement in public services. The more positive aspects of the (in many ways rightly) much maligned Big Society agenda that focused on local people having more of a say in how services are delivered & taking more ownership of those local services have seemingly been forgotten.
This leads me to think that if we'd had an intelligent, open and informed discussion about volunteer involvement in public services a few years ago we perhaps wouldn't have to resort to the interesting language you may not have noticed in the headline to the article quoted above - "Volunteers may run libraries, parks and museums warns local government chief".
Why is this something to warn us about? Are volunteers such scary people that we should be in fear of them when visiting the local museum in future? Or is it a warning that 'the volunteers are coming, be in fear for your jobs'? Or perhaps its a warning to the public, the old 'volunteer or lose it (the library, park, leisure centre etc.)' recruitment tactic.
Either way I can't help but feel we've got a situation of our own making here. With either total silence or well intentioned arguments against job substitution from the volunteer management community, we have perhaps missed a huge chance to speak up and educate. We have perhaps missed a golden opportunity to say how volunteers - either on their own or working alongside paid staff - need not be a threat but an opportunity to transform public services for the better.
The good news is that opportunity need not be entirely a missed one. We can still speak up and be heard. In our own organisations, in online forums, in comments to news articles, on social media, at conference and events, we can take a more positive line on how volunteers can add real value to public services.
Interestingly, the Association of Volunteer Managers (AVM) is developing a code of conduct for its members (and if you work with volunteers here in the UK you should be a member of AVM) which, if adopted, would require them to "advocate on behalf of volunteers at all times". In other words, we would be compelled to take a positive stance for volunteers in the delivery of public services as a matter of professional conduct.
So my question to you is whether you are ready to do this? Are you prepared to counter the warnings about volunteer involvement and champion the value they can add and good they can bring? Indeed, have you done this before and got tips to share? If not, what kind of information and support do you think you'd need to be confident in fighting the corner of the volunteer?
Please share your responses below.
If you'd like to read some of my blogs on job substitution (or, as I prefer, job displacement & replacement) please see my previous posts on this issue and my column for Third Sector online too. I've also stuck my head above the parapet and commented on stories about more volunteers working in libraries.